Lately I have been struggling with words. I think it has something to do with the politics of the time. I sit down to work, and my mind buzzes with white noise. I don’t know what to say or how to respond. There are all these wonderful WRITER’S RESPOND opportunities including Dante Di Stefano’s call for poems for his forthcoming anti-Trump anthology, Misrepresented People: Poetic Responses to Trump’s America, but I have nothing to offer. Instead of writing I find myself staring out the window, doodling, or looking at artwork.
The recent post by Paul Tracy Danison about the visual arts and moving "beyond words" made me wonder about the role other arts play in a poet’s life. As does Didi Menendez’s POETS/ARTISTS magazine, which creates a beautiful dialogue between poetry and art. I also keep thinking of O’Hara’s relationship to painting and painters, of how David Lehman described him as “an action painter in verse" and wishing I could paint with either color or words.
Recently I discovered that two poets whom I admire also paint. I thought I’d interview them here, on consecutive days, and ask them to talk about their work.
The first is the poet, Claire Bateman, and below is her painting, "The Quietness Clock."
What I love about Claire is her mystical vision and her unique ability to make the normal seem transcendent, or the transcendent normal. When I read her poetry (or just talk to her), I see the world through an other-worldly lens. She is, at once, witty and serious, literal and figurative. Her flights of fancy take me both away from and towards myself. How? I have no clue. Whether she is talking about something as simple as doing laundry as in “Three Interiors” which begins:
The cloud in the dryer doesn’t know it’s a cloud,
thinking it’s a demi-veil or a silk chemise,
items designed to never appear in a dryer.
Forming and falling apart, over and over,
the cloud couldn’t’ grasp the rules of laundry
if its life depended on them,
lustrous fog beholding a universe
a –tumble on the other side of the glass.
or talking about AA, as in her poem, “Anonymous, “which begins:
When AA offered me
the use of their Big Blue Book,
I respectfully declined, though
never has my life not been
or about to become so
in subtle, indeterminate ways
I have no name for . . .
or talking about pain, as in her poem, “The Pain Suit”
If you happen to live in a broad and open place,
you can watch as it comes flying in your direction—
not really a suit, of course, just the mask and gloves,
though considering the effect, the term is apt.
You can’t hope it’s hunting some stranger, since everyone knows
that it’s visible only to its destined bearer;
you can’t clutch at bystanders, seeking a human shield,
since it passes through every obstruction without even slowing.
It’s probably best to become a city-dweller,
surrounded by walls, oblivious to its approach,
unless you’re one of the fools who step forward to meet it,
flexing their fingers to feel for the cleanest fit.
Claire is, to my mind, nothing short of magical. Mark Halliday agrees, calling her "the most exciting talent in the USA in poetry,"
NA: Claire--how do you do it? How do you balance your time between painting and writing?
CB: One of the ways I do it by treating space as time—that is, by spreading notebooks, paints, canvases, etc. out all over my apartment (I usually have several writing and art projects going simultaneously) so that what I’m engaged in is readily available. I work incrementally and in motion, for instance, painting while I talk on the phone (on Bluetooth), and scrawling fragments of possible poems in my journal wherever I go. As Elizabeth King says, “Work proceeds as a series of self-interruptions.” Because I live in a very small residence, and I’m not very organized, this means tolerating a fair amount of clutter, which is painful to me, though slightly less so than not doing the work. Maybe I can take comfort from the fact that, all appearances to the contrary, as far as the universe is concerned, it requires slightly less entropy for there to be something than for there to be nothing.
Despite the fact that I’m partly retired, I still have to sacrifice or cut back on various aspects of life in order to have time to write and paint; what I’ve decided I’m willing to give up is complexity in terms of presentation—that is, fashion, home décor, etc.—and also in cooking/eating. If you’re willing to have a bowl of cereal for dinner, you can save yourself a good hour or so. Also, I don’t have a television—if I did, I’d spend a fair amount of time watching.
NA: How does the inspiration for a poem differ from that of a painting?
CB: The difference is primarily in the very beginning. With writing, I have the source material of scribbled fragments (ideas, images, etc.) in my journals to bring to the page, ready to be combined/arranged/cut/rearranged/developed/transformed/contradicted. The visual art is usually non-narrative and non-conceptual; I arrive at the paper or canvas not knowing what I’m going to do, as in Rebecca Solnit’s wonderful book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, where she quotes the ancient philosopher Meno: “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?.” Whatever shows up initially comes more through and from my hands than my brain, and feels more immediate than writing does.
NA: And is there any overlap between your paintings and poems? In other words, do you ever have a poem that has a painting that goes with it?
CB: Both processes are improvisational, messy, and all-absorbing, and with both of them, most of the time it feels as though I’m nearly always in the frustrating middle—that I’ve already accumulated multitudes of possibilities in my journal, and that I already have a lot of paints and art pieces-in-process around me, and that with both, after a certain point in the work, I’m using the same process of adding and altering layers/dimensions.
Sometimes I use writing and art against each other. When writing feels difficult, I recalibrate my attention, giving more of it than usual to visual art, and vice versa, as though I'm thumbing my nose at whichever muse I find most recalcitrant; being ignored seems to inspire a muse to be rather more forthcoming.
In general, I suspect that my art informs my writing more than the other way around, primarily because I'm mostly an abstract artist. I think that in a somewhat diffuse way, as I've grown in art-making, my writing mind has become more sensitized to subtleties of color, texture, and composition, density, and proportion.
I do have one poem-painting duo.
From “Three Skies” (in Scape):
- The Holes in the Wind
The holes in the wind are not indigenous to the wind,
nor may they be reduced to its absence;
they precede the wind and sustain it
as do roots the wilderness.
The holes in the wind are stitched
of ever-smaller holes
through which stillness works its way into the world
in varying harmonic combinations.
The holes in the wind are swarming the universe,
each with its singular mass, spin, and charge,
each finer than granulated diamonds,
and brighter than the White Forest,
which is not, as some maintain,
the Black Forest in winter,
but an entirely distinct entity
transposed with the Black Forest
at each upstroke of the sky’s one wing.
The painting is called “The Holes in the Wind.”
Everyone’s raving about it: the new music
performed only by virtuosos with palsied hands.
Others have studied to simulate that tremor
as an actor might counterfeit a limp or stutter,
but it can’t be contrived, so they must merely listen,
then offer their unimpeded ovation.
But generally, instead of painting from or about my own poems, or writing about my art or art-making, I’m interested in creating art about the work of others, particularly Emily Dickinson. I’ve just begun this endeavor, and am not crazy yet about anything I’ve done with it, but I look forward to further play, since Dickinson’s poems are such an interesting mix of images and abstraction. Below is my monoprint in response to her poem that begins:
Four-Trees - upon a solitary Acre -
Or Order, or Apparent Action -
CB: I’ve always had a vague urge to dabble, but in middle age, after watching an artist friend at work, I felt almost physically compelled to work with line and color, so I jumped in, experimenting, taking classes here and there, and investigating various mediums and surfaces. Art has transformed my daily life; even when I’m not at my table working, I notice so much more than I did B.A. (Before Art), and feel so much more alive, that in a very real sense I’m not quite the same person. I’m also more aware of what I don’t notice—this passage by James Elkins in his book The Object Stares Back speaks to this issue, and is worth including despite its length.
... I might entertain the idea that there are two kinds of seeing, instead of the single equation that says seeing equals thinking. The first would have to do with expressions such as "illuminating a problem" or "shedding light on an idea." When it's put that way, then thought is the illumination, and the truth is what needs to be lit by thought. On the other hand, when I say I'm "reflecting" on a problem or something has "just dawned on me," then it's as if the truth is already luminous and my thought merely collects the light.
According to the first model, thought takes place in darkness. Ideas and things and selves must be in a primordial darkness until thought sends out its beams to reveal them. But if I reflect on something, then I exist along with various objects in the world, all bathed in a light that comes from somewhere else. In the first model, blindness is all around: it is the condition of the world, and a thought is like a flashlight that temporarily reveals some local object. In the second there is no place for blindness, except in my own mind. If I fail to reflect, if I decline to try to understand the world, then I become blind, or rather I give way to the blindness that is already within me. The second model, where the world is bright and suffused with thought, really has no place for catastrophic, ongoing blindness. If I live in such a world and I choose not to see, then I suffer a momentary blindness -- it might be a slip, and error, a blunder, or a mistake, or in visual terms, a blind spot, a moment or a day of hysterical blindness, amnesia about a trauma, or just a misapprehension, something I overlook, something I fail to notice. No matter how serious these blindnesses are, I can recover from them: I can become aware of my mistake; I can look again and see better. In the first model, where the world is dark and only thought can illuminate it, blindness is more permanent, and I may not be able to recover from it at all. That kind of blindness would include ingrained prejudices, permanent gaps in my thought, failures of imagination, psychotic breaks, fanaticisms and dogmas, and in visual terms, all the things I cannot see or that I refuse to see. Blindness would be all around. Every image would be a light in the darkness, and seeing or thinking would take place against a backdrop of blindness. In this way of setting the problem, blindness is the precondition and constant accompaniment of vision. It cannot be fully seen, but it must always be present wherever there is seeing.
I would be more content to think of the world as it looks each day, filled with light. The sparse shadows and dark spots that remain would be like the few gaps in my sight—the blind spot in each eye, for instance. If I choose to think this way, thought is beautiful and easy. All we have to do is conceive of an idea and it appears in front of us, bathed in the light of thought, clear and distinct in all its details. And sometimes this happens: if we know an issue very well, we can call it to mind and see all its contours, everything that is involved in it, without effort and in great clarity. But there are many other moments when the other model seems more true. If we do not understand a problem very well, then we cannot form a mental image of it. It seems dark, and thinking about it requires great effort. Even if we think hard, we may illuminate only a small portion of it, and the light we throw may make it look distorted. In that case we might say we can't see the problem very well, that we cannot generate enough light to illuminate its outlines. It is sadder, but it strikes me that this is much closer to the truth: like seeing, thinking is intermittent, unreliable, and difficult. Both take place in darkness and both depend on light. Blindness is their constant accompaniment, the precondition of both thought and sight.
Working with visual art, then, has enriched me with a deeper sense of both sight and blindness.
Autobiographically speaking, my father’s mother was a writer:
Both my parents were highly educated and spoke several languages. My father worked with photography (and later, collage) in his free time, and my mother was quite literary, a writer of short fiction, though our neighbors (at least up until I reached seventh grade) weren’t interested in such things—my mother recounted the story of how a neighbor told her disdainfully, “I had an aunt who read.” Having a lot of books around me and being a lonely-ish only child in a “different” kind of family created a favorable climate for solitary imaginative play. There was no censorship at my house—I read constantly, everything from New Yorker cartoons to Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, and of course, my mother’s old diary and the great books of childhood.
I wrote my first poem at the age of five or so. In high school, I took creative writing classes, and received a fine classical literary education at Kenyon College. In my twenties, I discovered contemporary poetry through the Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee, where I attended my first poetry workshop. The first collection that I read, and which ignited me, was New American Poets of the 80’s—I still remember the chill I got upon encountering McKeel McBride’s “The Going Under of the Evening Land”:
NA: If you had to pick between painting and poetry, which would you choose? And why?
CB: Probably painting, perhaps because it seems more embodied, and thus more satisfying, yet, poetry is embodied too, in the physical book and as it travels on the vibrations of the voice, and I do experience it as a material entity within me, like music. Because they’re each embodied, though in different ways, this may be a non-rational preference on my part, or perhaps it’s simply because visual art is newer to me. However, I tend to prefer reading to both writing and creating art; I connect reading and art by making bookmarks (an image of them is below).
NA: What is your definition of a perfect poem? A perfect painting? Or a perfect day? Or is there such a thing?
CB: For me, and probably for most people, the perfect poem or painting is the one that seems (in its execution and in the unfolding of its feeling-sense) most surprisingly inevitable at the moment.
My perfect day would involve coffee, dark chocolate, unbroken solitude at home with many creative projects simmering, and a lot of snow and ice. It wouldn’t be perfect if it didn’t occur in the context of having a lot of people in my life at other times, of course.
NA: Do you think of art as a habit, a choice, or an act of faith? Either, or, or neither?
CB: Speaking of faith, inasmuch as I can imagine Judgment Day (whatever that may be), I envision it as, among other things, a revelation of everyone’s works of beauty/artistic exploration that remained undiscovered in life. The amount of art that’s recognized as such in the world has to be infinitesimal compared to what’s been created or even merely imagined only in secret throughout history because of limiting or oppressive circumstances of various kinds: all those smothered songs and crushed designs.
Art is certainly a habit, a choice, and an act of faith, as well as everything in between. Because I’m so aware of what an amateur I am and how much dreck I must produce in order to come out with anything I even somewhat like—the signal-to-noise ratio is appalling!—I have to constantly remind myself of what William James wrote: "Since when, in this mixed world, was any good thing given us in purest outline and isolation? ...The sole condition of our having anything, no matter what, is that we should have so much of it, that we are fortunate if we do not grow sick of the sight and sound of it altogether...Without too much you cannot have enough, of anything. Lots of inferior books, lots of bad statues, lots of dull speeches..." So we make the choice to develop the habit of art-making in faith that the act is worthwhile in itself, no matter the outcome. And personal as art is, there’s something impersonal and dispassionate about it as well; even if any one of us can’t create on any particular day or in any particular life season, other people are still creating freely. The work is part of the world; it’s always present.
Claire Bateman's books include SCAPE (New Issues Poetry & Prose); LOCALS (Serving House Books), THE BICYCLE SLOW RACE (Wesleyan University Press), FRICTION (Eighth Mountain Poetry Prize), AT THE FUNERAL OF THE ETHER (Ninety-Six Press, Furman University), CLUMSY (New Issues Poetry & Prose), LEAP (New Issues), and CORONOLOGY (Etruscan Press). She has been awarded Individual Artist Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the Surdna Foundation, as well as two Pushcart Prizes and the New Millennium Writings 40th Anniversary Poetry Prize. She has taught at Clemson University, the Greenville Fine Arts Center, and various workshops and conferences. She lives in Greenville, SC.
The photograph of Claire (below) was taken by Mary Robbins Hesketh.