Today, I am continuing my discussion of poets who paint (or painters who write poetry) by interviewing Nancy Mitchell. I first encountered Nancy in her capacity as an Associate Editor of Plume, one of my all-time favorite literary journals. (Really, how could I resist a journal named after a character in Henri Michaux’s prose poetry? And if you don't know Michaux's Plume, check out this wonderful example of a Plume poem. ) I was surprised to discover that Nancy paints in addition to writing, teaching, and editing. (In order, spaced throughout the interview, are her paintings, “Anasazi/Stranger,” "Atonement," "Zac," and "Red Horse Red.")
I think of Nancy Mitchell as a kind of Zen poet. Her short and visual poems are wake-up calls to the small and seeming ordinary moments in a day. They acknowledge the yearning of the heart and soul and the inevitable presence of loss. She accomplishes so much in so little space, as in this painful but beautiful poem, “The Leaving”:
To steady me,
to keep me from rising—
that last night with him, lying down,
he placed his hand on the space
where my ribs furl back like wings
to steady me,
to keep me from rising.
And then there is this simple poem, "Tuesday Morning":
Her breath fogs the window,
the window clears,
fogs the window,
it clears again.
And I love this slightly longer poem, “What About”:
sushi with the Merkles
merlot or cabernet would be fine with Martin
taking Max for a stroll at sunset
dinner with the dean
coffee with Don at ten
he said he’d call by 11
hopping in the shower at 11:15
dropping the whole thing
she doesn’t like being on top
of removing water stain
a comic book
lime neon bra
with matching panties
a doll with my face
a full-time phone lover
a phone life
a phone liar
the silence of cold spoons
My first question for Nancy: How do you do it? How do you balance your time between painting and writing?
NM: Ah, Nin. I’m totally inept at any kind of time management.
I always got unsatisfactory marks on “Uses
Time Wisely” on my elementary school report card. I have no idea what “wisely” meant—I mean, who is to say— or how to achieve it, although I’ve earnestly tried to imitate those more efficient, enviable Do-Bees. Oh the “To-Do” lists made and left behind, unchecked, the grim resolutions!
But, now that I think about it, if I tracked the hours I might find a balance of attention or energy between the two, although it most likely would be heavy on the poetry side. What usually happens is that when I hit a wall with writing, or finish a project, I’ll need something more physical, tactile, and I’ll go fool around in my basement studio.
NA: How does the inspiration for a poem differ from that of a painting?
NM: In most, but not all, instances, poems are triggered by an external source—something read, overheard, “overseen” then I work backwards to identify the corresponding feeling. With painting, I have a vague feeling, and start fooling around with material until I’m closer to finding an image.
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?
NM: When I was working on the poems about a close friend’s struggle with addiction and recovery (12 years!) for my second book, Grief Hut (which is much more narrative than the poems in The Near Surround featured here) I did a couple of spontaneous portraits of him—it was as if there was an excess of dark, undifferentiated energy that needed to find some form. A wee scary, those paintings.
NA: How did you become a painter? A poet?
NM: My father, an oil-business executive, was madly in love with and very knowledgeable about painting, and his passion was contagious. My siblings and I whiled away many a Sunday afternoon in art museums with him. There were always art books opened everywhere, and even before he made his fortune and could buy original art, he’d hang reproductions around the house so art was a daily presence in our lives. As an undergrad Art History minor, I took some basic art classes, but it wasn’t until my three kids were successfully launched that I had time to experiment. I came to poetry belatedly, in my late thirties, when I fell in love with a poet and poetry—a packaged deal.
NA: If you had to pick between panting and poetry, which would you choose? And why?
NM: Hmm… although I paint, would never presume to call myself a painter. I don’t have the art school creds, and although I do exhibit from time to time, I don’t push myself to deadlines. I don’t think I have what I could call a body of work. Because I don’t hold myself (or am held to) the same juried standards that I do with writing, I’m less judgmental and accepting, and painting is more playful, and extremely pleasurable. I don’t procrastinate the way I do with writing— a blank canvas doesn’t accuse me. (However, as an aside, as a result of painting, I’ve come to see procrastination as part of the creative process, a storing up of material, of energy, a kettle of water on the lowest simmer.) I wish I could have this same pleasure with writing. Is it metaphorically significant that my study is on the second floor and my studio is in the basement? Maybe I should flip them? But, ultimately, it is poetry upon which I most humbly, doggedly, bring my feeble powers to bear— for better or worse.
NM: A perfect painting is one that has a headwind of emotional energy behind it and is fully realized in one, say, four-hour session. A perfect poem is one that keeps calling me back and rewarding my diligence. A perfect day is one where I feel I’ve brought my full attention to whatever is at hand—and that includes all methods of procrastination.
NA: Do you think of art as a habit, a choice, or an act of faith? Either, or, or neither?
NM: I read somewhere that the most powerful form of reinforcement is intermittent, and that’s the reason gambling is so addictive. Maybe creating art
is like gambling, in that you never know when and what will pay off, but you’ve got to play to win?
NA: You are also the master interviewer for Plume Magazine. I wondered if you could say a few words about that?
NM: Master-that’s awfully nice of you! A couple of years ago, Danny Lawless, Plume’s editor extraordinaire, invited me to serve as Associate Editor of Special Features, and it’s been a lot of fun. Years ago I had a live jazz show on a local public radio station. I’d invite guest artists—musicians such as Blues songwriter/singer/guitarist Chris English, jazz guitarist Van Williamson and writers such as Jeffrey Skinner—to come on the show and play or read. Interspersed, we’d have a loose chatty, sort of Dinner with Andre interview, and I really wanted the Plume interviews to have that same spontaneous, live quality. So, if the interviewee, whose seven poems were being featured, was on board, rather than send a list of questions I’d send a salvo question. We’d chat back and forth via e-mail over a week or so, and see where we ended up. The February edition of Plume includes an interview with David Lehman. My fifteen (?) interviews, along with four others by different interviewers are forthcoming in Plume Interviews I, which I co-edited with Danny Lawless. My interview with you, which was a blast, appears in it.
Nancy Mitchell is a 2012 Pushcart Prize winner and the author of The Near Surround (Four Way Books, 2002) and Grief Hut (Cervena Barva Press, 2009). Her recent poems appear, or will soon appear, in Poetry Daily, Agni, Washington Square Review, Green Mountains Review, Tar River Poetry, Columbia College Literary Review, and Thrush, among others. She is the co-editor of and contributor to Plume Interviews I, forthcoming in February, 2017. Mitchell teaches at Salisbury University and serves as the Associate Editor of Special Features for Plume.