Menagerie of menace: a Q&A with Arna Miller, 2020 National Poetry Competition artist


When searching for this year’s commission for our annual National Poetry Competition artwork, The Poetry Society immediately fell in love with Arna Miller’s menagerie of cute but strangely menacing animals, cast into vintage, circus-like artwork alongside beautiful lettering. You can see Arna’s artwork for this year’s competition above, and read our interview with the artist to find out about her processes and inspirations.

What’s your process like? Is anything done by hand, or is it all digital?

I start with sketches, draw each character or element separately, and then scan and combine everything in Photoshop. I’ve trained myself to design and draw according to the principles of screenprinting.

Matches and matchboxes appear a lot in your work – as well as in this commission, you’d worked on a collaborative series of matchboxes with artist Ravi Zupa. What do you like about matchboxes? How did you get involved with that collaboration?

I found a book of vintage matchbox art in the library ten or so years ago. I like the impact and short narrative the pictures tell. I thought it would be cool to advertise one of my first art shows with matchboxes, so I screenprinted and cut out a bunch of little papers and glued them to matchboxes I got at the grocery store, and handed them out to friends, strangers and business owners. Ravi and I were in a romantic relationship for seven years, and we did all sorts of collaborations over the years.

There’s a great vintage style to your work that feels both strange and familiar. Can you tell us a little about your sources and inspirations?

Thank you, what a compliment! I am inspired by Japanese firecracker labels, the Victorian cat illustrator Helena Maguire, beer posters, Bollywood movie posters, matchboxes of course, war-time propaganda posters. I like bold and graphic but technically skilled illustration styles – and mysteriously nostalgic images.

Which artists/illustrators out there should more people know about?

Femke Hiemstra (@femtasia), Mando Marie (@seeyouthroughit) and Luke Pelletier (@lukepelletier).

A lot of your work involves a tight interplay between image and text, with the text often serving as a punchline – does one tend to come before the other in your creative process?

They evolve at the same time.  An idea will begin with either a sketch or words, then the other will emerge and they will evolve together as the idea is refined. 

What would you be doing if you weren’t making art?

I would buy cheap land and design and build a house, get it to be famous by featuring it in magazines and making a documentary about it, then a wealthy person would buy it.  Then with that money, I would buy land in a more prime location, and build a more fabulous house, and continue the process, until I’m rich and famous.  And I would design my own ultimate dream home.

See more and purchase prints of Arna’s work at

You can enter the 2020 National Poetry Competition here. The deadline is 31 October 2020!

2 July 2020