(Ed note: Sharon Dolin continues to join us from Barcelona, where she is running the Writing About Art in Barcelona poetry workshop.Find out more about Sharon here. )
Painting with silver leaf (in process) by Chelsea Davine
Yesterday I went to visit an English artist named Chelsea Davine who lives here in Barcelona, and whose studio is in my neighborhood of Gracia, just opposite Casa Vicens, one of Gaudi's early houses. After spending time with Catalan masters such as Picasso, Miro, and Tapies, I wanted to hear a contemporary artist talk about her art. She paints. It is possible to still paint. Her works are absract. She said she strives to make something beautiful. Another unfashionable thing in art. She works with paint and metal: gold leaf, or silver leaf, or copper leaf. So there's a gestur in the direction of old icon paintings that shine in patches, but abraded. Think of a botched Klimt. Or Klimt marrying Anselm Kiefer.
Davine says she works like a sculptor, applying paint and, gold leaf, for example, and then rubbing a lot of it away to reveal chipped layers of color. An abraded door or window into itself. As Daniel Kahnweiler famously remarked to a woman in his gallery who wanted to know what that mark was in the corner of a painting (a comment repeated and much celebrated by William Carlos Williams): "That, Madam, is paint."
I swim in the abstract with no need for explanation. Though Davine chose to offer one about a work-in-progress: saying that it represented her response to the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, of the West confronting the East. For me, that added little to my appreciation of the work and probably reduced it, briefly, to finding (or my frustration with not finding) signs of a violent geography. Trust the painting, not the painter, to wrench Lawrence into the realm of the visual arts. I am more interested in process. How she knows when a painting is finished. In one, for her, the drips of color were not of a strong enough tone and would have to go. In another, she said the painting had not yet achieved—what were her words—a luminosity (or something to that effect).
Process in poetry, especially when the poem is not overtly a narrative poem is somewhat similar. How do I know when a poem is finished? There is the initial draft, which I always write by hand in an unlined notebook. I hate pages with lines. As a poet, I will make the lines. I want a clear field in which to start. Then there is the act of typing the poem into my laptop, at which point much gets edited out/written in along the way. I might also make decisions to lineate the poem differently than I did in the written draft. Then I do try to print out a copy of the poem in an early draft before I do too much more to it, to see it on paper, and pencil it up before going back to the screen. If Chelsea Davine sees her painting as akin to sculpture, to taking things away after building them up, then I see my poetry writing as drawing, sketching. My notebook is my sketchbook.This process of penciling up a draft then typing in those changes and printing it out goes on any number of times. And I save and number and date all my drafts (usually). When am I finished? When I sense I can do no more or don't want to do more.
I talk to students often about leaving a bit of the rough energy that initiated the poem in the final draft. I can only resort to analogy. I don't want entirely smoothed out hair; a few tangles, even knots, creates greater liveliness in a poem. So the challenge in revision is to revise without polishing away all the moments of resistance, be they sonic, visual, or in sense.
Eloisa Armand Ugon reading from her novel Cabo Negro
One of the artists in residence with me is a novelist from Uruguay named Eloisa Armand Ugon. I was surprised and happy to see and hear her tell me that she always writes her novels longhand in a notebook. How many fiction writers are there who do such a thing. It became an exotic thing to discover a number of years ago that Larry McMurtry, writer of huge tomes, typed his novels out on a manual typewriter. Que raro! one would say here. Eloisa explained that by writing longhand, she was able to pay attention to the rhythms of the sentences in a way she could not do if she were typing on a screen. I wonder, as I have turned to writing memoir (as so many of us poets do), what am I losing by writing directly onto my laptop or iPad? Surely I am aware that my sentences don't have the same rhythmic density, nor does imagery predominate. Rather, essayistic observations and narrative are in the forefront.
Part of the problem with not writing pages of prose longhand is my handwriting, which was always awful, and has become barely legible. This is probably more and more true of all of us as we continue to become more agile typing on small and large screens. Which parts of our brains are we failing to stimulate? Is there something about the tactility and coordination required in using a pen or pencil on paper that creates a deeper, more nuanced engagement with language? Are parts of my brain lighting up when I compose poetry longhand that lie dormant when I type prose?