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Karen Schiff
Studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn
Art & writing at
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by guest blogger Karen Schiff My post today is the least pre-planned & the most thought-through of this week. This morning, I attended a demonstration of Chinese calligraphy (by contemporary ink & performance artist Zheng Lianjie), so I'm about to write about poetry-painting connections that are totally's just chicken-scratch. And this evening, I attended an opening of Tairiku Teshima's "Symbolic Calligraphy," such as this 2006 painting of the character "Sui (Greenery)" at right ( which is rendered imagistically, with a loose hand, & large: 43 x 28-1/2 inches). Yet I've been thinking for many years about calligraphy, & its way of seamlessly integrating visual & verbal modes (to the degree that it doesn't even make sense to separate them into distinct "modes"). Around 2005, in a class about Japanese Visual Culture, I heard that a single spoken word in Japanese can mean writing, painting, or scratching -- these three concepts are homonyms.* I remember that the word was "kanji" (but internet research now leaves me dubious: apparently "kanji" can mean many more things than these words, & I don't see anything online about painting or scratching. I'd love to know more about this...). True: writing can be made by scratching lines into a wall (of a prison, for instance), or a stylus into a wax tablet (from classical through medieval times). An image can be made by scratching a needle into a metal plate (as in an etching), or a fingernail into fingerpaint (or any tool into any paint). And now that we've connected scratching-writing & scratching-painting, how can we connect writing-painting? In calligraphy. East Asian calligraphic traditions have certainly been rich areas for visual-verbal integration. A 1992 article about calligraphy, "Pictocentrism," written by Charles Shiro Inouye (who happened to teach that Japanese Visual Culture class, all those years later!), was formative in my thinking along these lines. But western calligraphy can be imagistic, too. In art school, I studied with Brody Neuenschwander, whose handwriting might be familiar to you from the big screen: he does calligraphy for Peter Greenaway's films. He creates tools & techniques that would allow Roman letters to become more visual. For instance, he bends pen nibs out of cola cans, to create splatter effects such as those in "Your Feelings Slip" (2008), at left. (When I go through the process of "decoding" the writing in this piece -- I cannot "read" it without working at it -- I see that its "subtle fire" is being conveyed by the colors & lines, as much as by the language & its capitalizations.) This morning, Zheng Lianjie noted that the tools for Western calligraphy are not as flexible as those in Eastern traditions. The metal nib & the feather quill cannot change direction as easily as a pointed animal-hair brush. (I'm sure he does not know about Neuenschwander's cola-can nibs, which can move sideways more easily than standard metal nibs, but still...Zheng's observation holds.) Not only can the pointed brush pivot easily, but its stroke has a... Continue reading
Posted Oct 17, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
Over the past year, I've noticed a trendlet (not even a real trend, yet) of galleries exhibiting poets & writers in their project rooms -- small, windowless rooms at the backs of the buildings. I get a thrill when I anticipate visiting these shows: I love seeing how visual & verbal modes interact in these exhibitions. Sometimes a poet's words are composed in visually arresting ways; sometimes writers are creating collages out of writing; sometimes a poet's collages have no words at all. And so, what are they all saying? Let's start with Dickinson, that cloaked keystone of American poetry's past century. Last fall, during The Drawing Center's "Drawing Time, Reading Time" exhibition (an uneven yet fascinating survey of artists using language in their work, even when no letters were visible), the Center's back gallery held a fascinating little sideshow: “Dickinson/Walser: Pencil Sketches.” I say the show was "little" because the pieces in it were tiny: Emily Dickinson's handwriting scratched loosely over envelope scraps -- sometimes whole, & sometimes cut or torn to make them even smaller. Here, I could imagine that her line lengths may well have been inflected by the spaces in which she wrote, much like I remember that some famous artist said in an interview that the paintings' sizes expanded when the family bought a bigger car. There was also the incredible immediacy of imagining her finding & using these bits of paper, & storing them in her desk...their smallness made them feel closer to her body because they could be so easily hidden in pockets or in books held in the hand. I don't know the entire history of these...shall I call them manuscripts, or artifacts? -- I haven't studied the deluxe compendium edited by Jen Bervin & Marta Werner, The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope Poems. (Werner has reconsidered the term "envelope poem" as being too prescriptive; click <here> to read a Poetry Foundation interview where she explains her thinking.) These works add to the story of the "fascicles" of manuscripts that Dickinson bound together, in a simple suturing gesture that prefigures so many American women sewing the bindings of artists' books, a century later. (Or she carries on with a tradition of women working at anonymous positions, in book production industries.) In a New York Times review of The Gorgeous Nothings, art critic Holland Cotter asks, "Are they art? Sure. Why not?" & here I will restate the question: "Are they art? Sure. Why?" Because they are gorgeous. In part, their visual appeal comes from off-handedness: Dickinson was pursuing a verbal goal, & this material medium was simply her launching pad. Yet the envelopes also look like lily pads, each with a color & quality of paper that seeps into the viewer-reader's experience of the poem-in-the-making. (And here, I'm thinking about the etymology of "poem" as a "made thing," which I wrote about on Day 1...) The viewing experience gets both more & less complicated in the case of Robert Walser, whose tiny... Continue reading
Posted Oct 16, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
by guest blogger Karen Schiff The New School's room 510, at 66 West 12th Street, was an unexpectedly perfect place for last month's conversation between Edward Hirsch & David Lehman. Though the two were scheduled to discuss Hirsch's new reference work, A Poet's Glossary, the occasion coincided with the publication of Hirsch's latest book of poetry, Gabriel. You can see a write-up of the event elsewhere on this blog (click <here> to read the post). In that account, as well as in a recent New Yorker article about Gabriel, Hirsch is quoted on the difficulties of writing about a life challenge so devastating that I'm finding it hard even to type any words for it here. So, revving up resolve & writing most plainly: Hirsch's son, his only child, Gabriel, died unexpectedly in 2011, at age 22, when a party drug he maybe didn't anticipate mixed with physiological conditions he certainly couldn't control. How I wish those words weren't true, or that by un-saying them I could rewind reality & bring the dead back to life. Lehman & Hirsch agreed ruefully that the poem they most wanted not to write was an elegy for offspring. And Hirsch looked like he had been through the gates of hell. I had last seen him in 2008, at a reading he had given in DC, & I wondered if he had survived cancer in the interim. But mortality delivered a somatic shock in a different guise. I had gone to the event with a secret plan, built on a conversation I'd had with Hirsch after his 2008 reading. Back then, I had hoped he would read his poem, "The Horizontal Line (Homage to Agnes Martin)," because I admire Martin's work. When he didn't read it that night, I confessed to having considered sending him my request, by e-mail before the reading, & he enthusiastically encouraged me to do so some other time. He'd be happy to put that poem on the set list. So before the New School reading, I e-mailed him my request, with a reminder about the 2008 conversation. Hirsch replied with the amiable suggestion that I ask during the Q&A about ekphrasis, so he'd be able to talk about Agnes Martin in an answer still tied to the context of his glossary of poetical terms. Sounded great! I agreed. But Gabriel blew in. ("Unbolt the doors / Fling open the gates / Here he comes") As soon I heard Hirsch speak about the impossibility of finding a form in which to write about his vivid & inimitable son, now gone...details of ekphrasis & even the implacability of Martin felt moot. Hirsch's eventual arrival at a flexible form of three-line stanzas, with short lines & no punctuation so the emotion could turn on a dime (to evoke the "Mr. Impulsive" aspect of Gabriel's personality), didn't feel like an arrival at all, but rather a taking up residence in a dynamo of (e)motion. Thank goodness there was no Q&A. Instead of formulating... Continue reading
Posted Oct 15, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
by guest blogger Karen Schiff I want to rule language, but I also want language to rule me. -- James Siena Left (& elsewhere in the article): snapshot by the blogger; images of artworks are from the Sargent’s Daughters website. Right: James Siena, “Non-Slice,” 2005. Enamel on aluminum, 19-1/4˝ × 15-1/8˝ (48.9 × 38.4 cm). Photograph by Ellen Labenski, Copyright James Siena, Image via Mary Boone Gallery, New York / Courtesy Pace Gallery. This work is on view in "Spaced Out: Migration to the Interior,” at Red Bull Studios in New York, through December 14, 2014. I walked into the opening at Sargent’s Daughters gallery, on the Lower East Side, expecting to see some of the carefully hand-wrought, rule-based abstractions for which James Siena is world renowned. Most iconically, he paints on modest rectangles of aluminum (see above, right), using signpainters’ lettering enamel. (Might this medium already link his work to writing?) But I knew that “Orly Genger and James Siena: New works on paper” would be a drawing show. (It continues through October 26, 2014.) What I didn’t know, & what threw me back on my heels (though I don’t generally wear heels), was that I would not immediately recognize which drawings were Siena’s, & that he'd be “drawing” with a typewriter. Siena is not the only major-league artist to use a typewriter: Carl André typed “poems” as artworks, & displayed them in gallery exhibitions for decades. How does Siena think about this precedent? Simply: he was “really loathe to step on anybody’s toes.” He didn’t use a typewriter until he thought of something of his own to do with it, in part because of “having so much respect for André’s typings.” Typings? Now there’s a curious term: it refers solely to the medium, without declaring a genre. Art vs. Writing -- why take sides? Well, sometimes it clarifies things. André called his works poems, but Siena thinks of his own works as drawings, “not as poetry at all...& I don’t think of myself as a poet. But I love poetry.” (He reads Charles Bernstein, Clark Coolidge, Doug Nufer, Mónica de la Torre, & Mark Strand in addition to the many other poets he hangs out with.) I can see why: Siena’s language in his typewriter drawings is only palindromes. He chooses phrases whose letters reverse, midway through, to yield mirrored sequences. (Though I’ll eventually concentrate on the palindromic drawings, for the readership of this poetry blog, Siena also types drawings from either punctuation marks or number sequences.) He focuses on the palindromes’ letter patterns, not on their linguistic meanings. Still, Siena chooses his palindromes carefully, as you’ll see in our interview. There is content here; could it qualify as poetic content? The words do struggle & dance with the rectangular images they create... James Siena, “Untitled (is it I? it is I),” 2013 (& detail) Through our conversation, Siena’s shift into word-based art came to seem much less abrupt. He talked about decades of his earlier work with... Continue reading
Posted Oct 14, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
by guest blogger Karen Schiff Warm greetings, “bestampo” blog readers! This week, I’ll be posting on the theme of “Visual / Poetry.” When I signed on to blog here, I declared my theme the way I make sketches: by riding an impulse, not by calculating a plan. The topic felt rich & confounding, & the words emerged without hesitation. So for this first post, I’d like to dig into my title a bit: what could “Visual / Poetry” be? How do I mean this phrase; what will I be writing about this week; & what can this pairing of words suggest about poetry itself, & about artwork? First: the punctuation. My title sprang to mind complete with that virgule (slash) between “Visual” & “Poetry.” The virgule looks like a delineation (hey -- that word has a “line” in it!), a separation between visual & verbal.* Though neuroscientists say that we process visual & verbal input using different parts of the brain, people with head injuries do rewire (& I wonder how synaesthesia works). So I doubt that hard & fast separations are required. Anyway, I don’t want my virgule to create a thorough barrier between visual art & could be more like a barrier reef. I think “text” is always already a kind of image: reading is a visual activity. (Line breaks and white spaces can make poetry especially visual...) There may be tensions or apparent incommensurabilities between visual & verbal modes, yet even these signal some assumed common ground against which the “gap” is measured. So I could also say that my virgule is a low tennis net over which the “Visual” & “Poetry” can play back & forth...& each can even sometimes leap into the other’s court. A net is not a wall: it’s porous & flexible. And a barrier reef is alive. I’m not yet sure what all of this implies about artwork and poetry. The idea of jumping the net can create a context for the phenomena of poetry getting read in galleries, & artwork getting published in literary reviews. I’m jazzed to say that I hadn’t thought of the tennis net or the barrier reef before I started writing this! I’m also relieved to learn that my thinking on art & poetry has relaxed since the Spring, when I wrote an essay for Art Journal (“Connecting the Dots / Hijacking Typography”). There, I worried over the infiltration of poetry into the visual arts. I do still wonder if visual art offers something -- generative ambiguity? palpable immediacy? -- that verbal arts can’t touch, though perhaps on these measures, poetry is art’s nearest cousin among written genres. I’ll let all this percolate... One other punctuation detail will tip my hand... In this blog, I’m using an ampersand instead of the word “and,” so I can trick myself into writing more casually. I use ampersands in e-mails & texts; I think blogs require a similarly off-handed rhetoric. But ampersands also serve to interrupt the flow of... Continue reading
Posted Oct 13, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Oct 10, 2014