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Molly Peacock
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D.W. Winnicott’s marvelous book, Playing and Reality, published in the mid-20th century, describes the intermediate area between external and internal experience where we play. As children play, they define this arena, beginning their relationships with the world. Play is the source of creativity, and Winnicott doesn’t mean artistic product, but instead the creativity of everyday life, the shared playing that creates culture. Though the talk about play is complex, actual playing feels simple and natural, provided you weren’t a child whose capacity for play was damaged. It is a very big job to teach someone how to play. Or to re-teach someone. But on all the downward slopes in my life—which I think of as many mountains, not just one mountain—I know that I felt rescued, pulled upward, through play. It’s the basis of art for me—and perhaps for you, too, reader, if you’ve stuck with this series of five blogs. When the estimable photographer Claire Holt (check out her dreamy portraits of Emma Thompson, Paul Auster, Mark Norris, Suzan-Lori Parks, Quentin Tarantino and more) suggested that we just play around taking some photographs, I quickly said yes. Holt not only has the famous and the corporate as her clientele. She also does the darkly internal series, We Chase The Things We Flee, a remarkable group of photographic images with words superimposed: young girls turning their backs and fleeing situation after situation. Girls with the courage to run. Really playing, after a certain age, takes courage, too. Holt’s new project is a series of portraits of women writers. Here’s how she describes it: I am working on a series of portraits of women writers for an exhibition and a book. I am doing a non-traditional, more collaborative portrait process where both the photographer and subject are fully engaged in the creation of the image. The resulting portraits are as much about the play and interaction of the creative process as they are about the writers. So far Holt has engaged some marvelous (and beautiful) writers in the portrait play: Kimiko Hahn, Marie Howe, Honor Moore, Sigrid Nunez, Dawn Raffel, Victoria Redel, Roxana Robinson, Christine Schutt, Kate Walbert, Diane Williams, and more. When Holt and I sat down to play in front of a splendid painting by Morton Kaish, we were inspired by Mary Delany. Delany is the 18th-century collage artist who pasted spectacular cut paper flowers on dramatic black backgrounds. I wrote about her in The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 and Delany's Damask Rose, an image from the book, courtesy of the British Museum, is at the left. Holt brought the black velvet drop cloth; I arranged the flowers. Holt dropped the roses on the black background; I bent the roses into the painting. Both of us are yoga and Alexander Technique practicers, so she got me a pillow to cushion my sacrum and lift me upright while sitting for a lonnnnng time on the floor. The end result photograph won’t look like this... Continue reading
Posted Nov 15, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Caricature—beloved of 18th-century wits—still has its satirical seat in newspapers, news journals, and, of course, political blogs. But every time I look at a satirical cartoon, I feel sorry for the subject, even if it’s a centuries-dead Georgian-era moll. Another little hit on the vanity button… And what about caricatures of contemporary poets? Can the general public identify any North American poet from a photograph, let alone recognize that visage in a caricature? Poetry catapults no one to caricaturability. But on the cover of every volume of Storyline Press’s Critical Introduction monograph series is a caricature of the subject by Herblock Award-winning political editorial cartoonist John Sherffius. You might know his work best if you are familiar with The Big Read sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. Sherffius is responsible for the signature caricatures of John Steinbeck, Mark Twain and Carson McCullers, among many other fiction writers. I have to confess that I grew queasy when I learned that I would have to suffer a black-and-white portrait-lampoon, even though I was terribly flattered that mine would be the next monograph in the series. Jason Guriel, an extremely astute younger critic, was going to give my poetry a going-over. And Sherffius was going to do that to my face…. That stuff is ok for big, famous dead fiction writers, but a small, living large-nosed poet like me? Then the cartoonist wrote and asked for my poetry. Really? Yes, and several photographs of me as well. The man seemed to be trying to understand how to draw an image from inside my words. Of course, I softened. He wanted to draw lines from my lines. A collaboration was being born. “I do enjoy the challenge of creating a caricature that captures the spirit and personality of a subject,” he wrote in an email. “Being able to mold the facial features of someone, but at the same time have them still be recognizable, is the goal for any caricature artist.” We had gotten kind of friendly. Eased ourselves into a bit of an exchange. Finally I popped the question that was making me so anxious. “Where do you literally draw the line between essentializing someone, say, Marilyn Nelson, and daring more of a parody, say, David Mason in his hat? Oh, please, please don’t parody me, I silently begged. I want to be essentialized, instead! My lampooner took me seriously. Just as seriously as he obviously took his art. For it was art we were exchanging opinions about, and it was the art of the satirical drawing that I was regarding as I examined his line-portraits. “ Singling out one or two examples to be used in a poet's caricature is difficult, as writers can touch upon many disparate themes and subjects in their work,” Sherffius explained to me. “If there is one famous, standout poem, say for example Poe's 'The Raven,' this would not be an issue.” If only I’d written “The Peacock,” I whined to myself. “In the case... Continue reading
Posted Nov 14, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
My guess is that the Missionary Position of most collaborations between poets and artists is the sequential one: poet finishes poem, then illustrator steps in. It may not be fancy, but it’s so reliable. Who cares about a Kama Sutra of collaboration as long as the basic sequence works? In a week’s worth of blogging about collaboration, surely the traditional way to connect deserves its moment, provided that moment has just a little bit of glamour. My chosen star of the regular way to do it is the intriguing and gutsy Peck and Pock: A Graphic Poem by Kathleen Driskell & AJ Reinhart. For Kathleen Driskell a graphic poem works first as a poem on a traditional page. Peck and Pock: A Graphic Poem by Driskell & AJ Reinhart uses a poem originally published in Driskell’s volume of poetry, Seed Across Snow (Ren Hen Press). AJ Reinhart graphicizes Driskell’s poem in boxes, cartoon-style. Driskell is based in Louisville, KY. (She’s Associate Director of the Spalding University Brief Residency MFA Program.) But Reinhart, who studied illustration at schooled at the Ringling School of Art and Design and who collaborated with his son Kaleb to create the webcomic Kaleb Triceratops and the Paleo Pack, is based in San Jose, CA. Their collaborative process only requires virtual proximity because Driskell and Reinhart have worked sequentially. She wrote the lines; he did the lines of interpretation. I asked Driskell about how her lines and the lines of the illustrator work together. “My lines tend to be fulsome and chocked full of imagery—I love a lavish line full of appositives,” Kathleen wrote. “I spend a lot of time thinking about where to turn the line to create surprise. AJ’s drawn lines are confident, strong, and feel more work-horse to me. I mean this is a good way.” What good way? “I think his sensibility keeps Peck and Pock from sliding into the sentimental,” Driskell confesses. “In our collaborative iteration, Peck and Pock: A Graphic Poem is very different from the version of the poem first published in my collection Seed Across Snow. AJ’s art makes this version feel much darker to me, as if Peck and Pock is an adaptation of my poem, akin to the way a novel might be adapted for a film.” And film was just where Driskell went after her graphic poem experience. (She still is very much a page poet however, and her next book, Blue Etiquette, is forthcoming from Red Hen.) “Since my collaboration with AJ, I’ve been making poetry videos that put language into motion in time and space. I’m amazed by all options that become available when a poet doesn’t have to work the language from the top of the page to the bottom. When deployed through time, a word or phrase or line that feels lighter in sound or emotion can literally float to the top of the page or screen.” Collaborating with AJ Reinhart has done for Driskell just what it seems to have done... Continue reading
Posted Nov 13, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
A Companionship of Lines: Take two on poetry as a collaborative art... How do you stay in touch with poetry when you’ve had such enormous success as a novelist that all the winds in your life blow you toward the sentence and not the line? Poet and novelist Anne Michaels, the author of Fugitive Pieces and The Winter Vault, has found an answer in a fascinating collaboration with visual artist Bernice Eisenstein, herself the author of a graphic memoir I recommend to all: I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors. The line is literally the source of their enterprise together. Correspondences (McClelland & Stewart/Canada; Alfred A. Knopf USA) their new book, is not an ordinary volume in any way, not in its feel, or the way it opens, or how the pages turn. Michaels and Eisenstein knew the form “right from the beginning,” Anne said to me in a telephone interview yesterday. The two, who always wanted to work together, came up with an accordion-style format and even went so far as to make a mockup of the book near the start of their collaboration. The form they devised determined that Michael’s poem would unfold from one side, and that Eistenstein’s portraits of 20th-century writers and thinkers (along with minimal quotations from their works) would unfold from the other. The drawn line, prominent in Eisenstein’s portraits of figures like Fernando Pessoa and Charlotte Salomon, works in conversation with the variable lines in Michaels’ poetry. “Bernice always wanted to create something with me, and I wanted to work with her, too,” Anne said. (Both women live in Toronto.) “After my father died, I knew I wanted to write some kind of elegy,” but not a traditional one, certainly not a story. Instead, she was interested in her father’s “invisible life, the inner conversation he had with the ideas of writers and artists” he admired, and who were so much a part of the wrenching times he lived in. (Isaiah Michaels fled Poland and eventually settled in Canada.) Once Bernice and Anne determined the format, “all the ways of interaction were there from the start.” The limitations of the object determined the length of individual sections. “I knew each page had to be a certain size.” Anne continued. Dimensions both created and became lines. “Physically, we wanted the book to contain the inexpressible.” The attempt to find words for the ineffable—that’s a definition of the impulse to poetry. “I had a long-standing conversation with myself about language and poetry,” Anne murmured. “I wanted to bring the language down to a rudimentary place. We have biological rhetoric and eulogizing language, but not the language for death.” As the poet searched for this language, her friend Bernice’s visual instincts offered another expressive alternative. Inside the Old French root converser is the idea of “verser,” to occupy oneself. But in converser, two occupy themselves together. Verser also, of course, refers to the turning lines of verse. As the poem summons up conversations in the past... Continue reading
Posted Nov 12, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Poetry can be lonely to write. One antidote? Collaboration. A Mutual Muse steps out when two artists, from different disciplines, work in tandem. Each one can sense the vibrancy of the other’s imagination throbbing, stalling, racing, lolling, and napping. Intimate, yes. Sexual, no. But can untrusting and solitary souls like poets actually collaborate with other artists? Join forces, team up, cooperate, liase? Here comes a week of answers to solo angst… The Rose-Colored Chair at the End of the Mind “Oh I want that chair!” my friend the poet Phillis Levin said to me when I emailed her Kara Kosaka’s collage of a dreamy pink wing-backed armchair. Phillis is on a quest for a chair for her study. Kara Kosaka, an illustrator located in British Columbia, seems to have created a virtual model of The Perfect Poet’s Chair. Kosaka is now transforming a book project called Alphabetique: Tales of the Lives of the Letters for McClelland and Stewart, Random House Canada. I am the so-called author of this book. But in fact the book is a product of the Mutual Muse. To say that Kosaka and I are “working” together underestimates the power of her visual intuition. In fact, she seems to be reviving that once-drab definition of poetry as “word painting.” I’ve never met Kosaka in person and only visualize her from the photo, above. But I have walked the rooms of her imagination for five months now. Every Thursday she takes off from her day job and, with her little girl Mae at her feet, comes up with a visual response to one of 26 tales I’ve written. She emails it at midnight her time, and I open it as soon as I get up. It makes my Friday morning. Kara Kosaka As a writer in my seventh decade, I’ve been shocked at the twists and turns my own creative life has taken. Alphabetique began as a book of poems, then transmogrified into twenty-six brief imaginary biographical tales of those shapes we call letters. Kosaka composed this uncannily internally accurate response of a rosy chair to a tale called “Portrait of the Artist as the Letter B.” Of course, the tale never mentions a chair at all. Now back to Phillis, who is still searching for that ideal upholstered seat for her office. “I want that chair!” she repeats to me in one of our countless phone calls between Toronto, where I live and New York, her home. Is Kosaka’s chair the seat of the imagination? Both Phillis and I responded to it as just that: the mental place to curl up and write a small interior lyric—a 21st century poem composed in a chair so virtual it only exists in digital form. Phillis and I are astounded to realize that we have exchanging poems for thirty eight years. Inside this exchange we occupy an imaginary playing space together. We couldn’t be more different as poets or as people. Yet we meet in a room in the Mansion... Continue reading
Posted Nov 11, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
James Arthur! So there are TWO of you! Thanks for bringing up the issue of form. Besides Zach's sonnet anthology, there is also the intriguing anthology IN FINE FORM edited by Sandy Shreve and Kate Braid a collection of all kinds of forms followed by and even invented by Canadian poets. It's published by Polestar Books. Cheers, Molly
Dear Zach, Thanks again for adding zest to this discussion. Poetry in Canada rather than Canadian Poetry is a great way to reinvigorate the aesthetic/national talk that, you're right, breaks out into superficialities at every turn. But I do notice that the subtitle to your fab anthology Jailbreaks is, um, 99 Canadian Sonnets, not 99 Sonnets from Canada. There is something sticky about those national adjectives! And, as you note, something fascinating about geographical proximity. The closeness of Newfoundland and Ireland, for instance, and the powerhouse literature being made in Newfoundland. Again, I appreciate all you've said as our Canadian-American week comes to an end. All the best for breaking us out of the jail of these distinctions, Molly
Thanks for bringing laughs into our ultra-serioso conversation, Jim! This girl rolls her sleeves, but she stops at insect antennae. Eeeuuwwh!
Hi Zach, Thanks for joining the fray! You mean you don't like my swimming pool/lake analogy? I kind of enjoy your notion of a "lake school" (and a "pool school" for that matter). It's true, I haven't fit minimalism into my categories, and it certainly belongs there. I'm quite a fan of Catherine Graham's work myself. Still, isn't there some value in hungering to describe what's distinctive about national poetries? Even if it propels one to resort to a cliche? Whenever I ask Canadian poets what distinguishes them from their US counterparts, I get only the vaguest answers. Have you got an analogy that makes better sense? Perhaps its all a point of view problem: the closer a commenter becomes to this poetry, the fewer distinctions the commenter can see? But literature thrives on distinctions! So I'm going to go on making them. Even a stereotype, properly framed, can foster cultural growth. Thanks for your your non-Canadian impoliteness. (And I'm proud to be in 99 Sonnets.)
Susan Ioannou, I'm going to look for that Canadians Are Not Americans book. . .
Susan Cody, thank you so much for those comments on Avison and her "double-jointed back handedness." It's too bad that The New Yorker's website doesn't have a way of helping people identify poems such as the one you remember. And I wonder if anyone out there has been tracking Canadian appearances in that magazine. . . .Anyone?
Sonia Elizabeth Di Placido makes an important point about the new canon: that's very much why we're engaged in this project. By naming names we're enlarging the existing canon, or at least changing it. I also like to think of projects like this as shaping the landscape of contemporary letters -- or perhaps simply acknowledging that the landscape is now being influenced by new weather and new upheavals.
Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, Jason. I'm glad you were impressed with Stephanie Bolster's choices. I was, too. As the General Series Editor I didn't want to interfere with her process, and I must say it was absolutely meticulous. She found many stunning poems, yours included. As for naming the names of Canadian poets, I think we need to do that wherever and whenever we can. It keeps bringing these poets into the light of an American readership -- a readership that only knows a very few of them So I'm very glad you have added to Bloom's list, even while appreciating his opinions.
I'm just catching up on responding to these posts, and I want to thank Craig Poile for reading that Avison poem aloud. It's worth the "punishment" to figure out how to deliver it. She thanks you, I'm sure, from wherever she is now . . . All the best, Molly
This blog is honored to hear from Professor Ian Lancashire, the pioneer of the fabulous website Representative Poetry On Line. If you've never been to this site, it's quite amazing. It's one of the most comprehensive and august sites for poetry in English on the web. (I say this with prejudice, since I sit on its Board of Advisors.) The names that Ian reels out pack a punch for Canadian readers, but hardly make a "ting" in the ears of Americans, so I'm glad to hear this litany. Just to add: Jason Guriel, who takes Harold Bloom to task, is in The Best Canadian Poetry 2008.
Sylvie Planet, thank you for reading this blog at 2am and adding that non shoulder shrug! Americans don't have much awareness of the dual languages of Canada. That's why the "we" is so fraught, you readers out there. . . Nous avons besoin d'un anthologie en francais aussi.
I'm thrilled with all these responses, both to The Best Canadian Poetry in English idea as well as to Margaret Avison herself. To Bruce Meyer's love of Avison's prickly distance, I should add her comments about this poem, written shortly before her death: "Hag-Ridden" was written in Margaret's eighty-eighth year, when she was well-acquainted with a need to use a cane on her daily walks out under the "mysterious (some days dazzling) sky." This comment can be found in the end notes to The Best Canadian Poetry 2008.