Bill probably doesn’t remember, but we first met in the late ‘90s at a party in someone’s posh Upper West Side apartment. I don't remember whom the party was for but I do remember feeling a bit lost; I had recently moved to New York City from a small town in upstate New York and I didn’t know anyone at the party other than David Lehman. Somehow Bill and I struck up a conversation. I knew who he was—David had told me about him—but I knew nothing other than that he was a gifted photographer. During the course of our conversation he described his “Portraits of the Collaborative Self” project and told me that he was about to embark on a cross-country trip to take photographs. The fruits of the trip and of many other encounters are included in Act 3.
Here’s how it works: Bill meets with his subject and over the course of a session, some lasting several hours, they talk. At a certain point they’ll detect an emotional spark—a subject, a feeling—that has weight and meaning. The subject will begin to “play,” creating a backdrop using the raw material of a white roll of paper, black paint and a paintbrush. Most of the photographs show the subject in a studio but others were taken in a field, or in a desolate urban center. All are black and white. Unlike Act 2, the subject is clear; there are no grainy background or distortions. The magic is in what the play has yielded. Here’s Willem Defoe before a deKooning-esque painting of a large breasted woman. A mournful firefighter holds a scroll on which he’s written a list of names. One assumes these are the brother-firefighters who died on September 11. Trevor Winkfied stands before a paper filled with glyph-like shapes. Many of the subjects are artists, others are unknown (to me). You wonder what got them to the moment that is captured in the photograph. They’re provocative, humorous, whimsical.
The image above is from subsection entitled “Seventeen Bedrooms: A Spaghetti Western,” a collaboration between Bill and the visual artist Joanne Boldinger. In each image, Boldinger stands before a painting of a bedroom. No two are alike. In some, the bed is the focal point, it others it is a mere slice, glimpsed behind a distant door. Is there a room more charged with emotion than the bedroom?
I’ll just put this out there: I cannot stop reading Bill Hayward's Chasing Dragons: An Uncommon Memoir in Photographs! It is my "Archaic Torso of Apollo." If I’m not looking at it, it’s looking at me. There is no hiding. When I close the book, it glows from within. Seriously. And I’m only at Act 2, which is where Bill really starts shaking things up.
He introduces Act 2 with a few paragraphs to explain his move away from traditional portraiture and toward experimentation. Traditional portraiture is somewhat exciting and interesting, “but in the final analysis, not lastingly fulfilling.” He documents his transition from formal to abstraction or, as he puts it “I commenced 'bushwhacking' in the darkroom (this is way before digital) and experimenting with print, paint, paper and scissors and following real 'brush strokes' of accident—disrupting what I knew of visual technique and tradition.” Think draftsman turned painter; they well know what they’re rejecting and they’re impelled to take the risk.
Bill continues to observe and admire dancers both in photographs and paintings. He photographs them from every angle and while both still and in motion, nude or partially draped. The nudes in particular are gorgeous, with their long and muscular bodies. Bill captures them uninhibited in their nakedness, as if when set free from the artifice of costume, they can most fully express themselves.
The images below are from the second and eighth sub-sections of Act 2. They illustrate the artist’s progression as he turns away from tradition and toward disruption. We’re not in Kansas anymore, or Vogue.
The first Act in Bill Hayward's stunning Chasing Dragons: An Uncommon Memoir in Photographs is a series of "traditional portraits." While he includes images that one would describe as "traditional," others hint at Bill's impulse toward abstraction and experimentation. President Ronald Reagan, for the cover of Fortune magazine, appears Presidential; on closer examination you can see that Bill has captured--in the tilt of Reagan's head, his slightly raised eyebrow, his lips parted and his arms crossed--the former president's belligerence.There's playfulness in the portraits of dancers, with whom Bill has a unique sympathy that he's nurtured for his entire career. I love the portrait of New York City Ballet's Edward Villella. Only a true dance lover would know to capture Villella when his hands are arranged in the signature Balanchine style; fingers loose and separated so that when the dancer is in motion, the audience sees the entire hand. McCarthy-era attorney Roy Cohn looks appropriately sinister. An aging Milton Berle seated before a painting of cabbage roses reveals the dark side characteristic of so many comedians. Here's someone you know and love; his stance and expression daring you to guess at what he's thinking. What was he thinking?
(Ed note: This week we're featuring photographs from Bill Hayward's Chasing Dragons: An Uncommon Memoir in Photographs. Find yesterday's post here. sdh)
Poetry is how we pray, now. In these skeptical times, poets are Caedmon and poems hymns. Past the personal, poets sing for those who cannot – registering our awe, making sense of our anguish, and harnessing the inchoate longing of countless souls. Unlike prose, poetry can keep its secrets - deepening our silences, so that we might overhear ourselves.
Poetry, also, can restore our sight, helping us to bear better witness to Now and, past that, calmly gaze over the head of our harried times. By lending us this third (metaphysical) eye which collapses distances, poetry can act as a sort of journalism of the soul, reporting on the state of our spiritual life. After all this, too, is what prayer can do: serving as our conscience, and reminding us in times of (personal or political) duress of our essential selves, or who we might become: ‘the better angels of our nature.’ Thus, poetry reconciles false distinctions between vita active and vita contemplativa – demonstrating how words are also actions. I pray by admiring a rose, Persian poet Omar Khayyam once said. In contemplating poetry’s rose – its inscrutable architecture and scented essence — we’re made finer morally, able to conceive of a greater reality.
Our metaphysical eyes are expert at collapsing distances, seeing through the apparent to the infinite. Lately, I’m consumed with the idea of the artist as mystic, and the worship of beauty as a form of prayer. How, in Khayyam’s deceptively simple utterance (prayerful admiration of a rose) one finds the connection among the visible, invisible, and indivisible laid bare. Theologian and Sufi mystic, Al Ghazali, puts it thus: This visible world is a trace of that invisible one and the former follows the latter like a shadow."
One year before his death, Rilke is meditating upon the inseparability of the material and spiritual worlds, in these memorable words:
"It was within the power of the creative artist to build a bridge between two worlds, even though the task was almost too great for a man… Everywhere transience is plunging into the depths of Being. It is our task to imprint this temporary, perishable earth into ourselves, so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its essence can rise again, invisible, inside of us. We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible."
Reverence for the visible world is not in opposition to the invisible one; in the same way that it is through the body we access the life of the spirit. Remembering we are "bees of the invisible," sweetens the suffering and even cheats death of its ultimate sting. We are saved by the very idea of a back and forth, between a Here and There. Bodies are like poems that way, only a fraction of their power resides in the skin of things. The remainder belongs to the spirit that swims through them.
Here is another Persian and Sufi poet, Hafiz, reflecting on the centrality of beauty to our well-being:
“The heart suffers when it cannot see and touch beauty, but beauty is not shy it is synonymous with existence.”
Beauty, far from being a superficial concern is essential, and can be a turnstile that leads us from the visible to the invisible world. To return to Khayyam, yet again, by admiring the rose — its inscrutable architecture and scented essence — we are made finer morally, spiritually even. This is how aesthetics can serve as an ethical code, and prayer is "the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul" (Emerson’s definition).
Poets, philosophers and mystics, by their nature, seem especially well-suited to exposing the false divisions between the visible and invisible worlds. While a calling in the life of an artist might be divorced from the strictly religious sense of the word, it still requires similar renunciations, obedience and sacrifice. I can’t say I’ve studied the lives of mystics as closely as I have those of artists, yet the profound similarities seem difficult to dismiss. Time and again, I discover poets and thinkers I respect powerlessly submitting their private lives in the service of intensifying consciousness (out of what can only be described as an indestructible inner imperative). Thus, entire lives are anxiously arranged around the conditions most conducive to the maturity of this elusive faculty.
The artistic-philosophic landscape is teeming with seers of this type. The power and aura of these fiery spirits derives as much from the truths or realities they have revealed as what they’ve had to sacrifice along the way; it is an authority born of the tension between what is accomplished and what is suffered.
What such poets or thinkers have in common is a life-long struggle to build a bridge between the two worlds — an uncommon commitment to bear better witness and Be, more fully. To travel to and fro, between the visible and the invisible, required a kind of vanishing act of the traveler, what Foucault called “a voluntary obliteration that does not have to be represented in books because it takes place in the very existence of the writer.”
I held out as long as I could before signing up for an email account. At the time, I viewed the idea of electronic mail as invasive, and unnecessary; far preferring the romance and torture of letter-writing which took days or weeks to compose and send. But at the repeated entreaties of a dear friend (and early adopter of new technologies), I caved in. I remember pressing the “send” button on that first email felt like diving off a cliff —as terrifying, as exhilarating. My threatened, and admittedly precious, terms of agreement in those heady days were that I would not report on my outer life, or any daily activities, but rather share glimpses of my mental diary.
For more or less the same reasons (perhaps, out of a writerly fear of being consumed?) I never owned a mobile phone, until I moved to the US nearly ten years ago. Why willingly carry a tracer, I thought, shrilly interrupting my inner dialogue at any moment? If someone needed to contact me, urgently, they could reach me at home or work. But, the rest of the time was mine: to dream, to escape, to slip between the gaps. Now, I confess, my Iphone serves as a kind of life-support machine, and I suspect I am not alone. I’m still not overly fond of speaking on it, but think of texting as a kind of telepathy and do share, through the pores, on Facebook and Twitter (after, you guessed it, also fighting them off for as long as I could, in hopes social media would go away).
Instead, what does seem to be going away to my dismay, and those of my ilk, is the so-called real world, specifically the print world. As a writer, it fills me with dread to see independent publishers endangered, actual bookstores going out of business, book review sections in esteemed newspapers folding and, subsequently, the newspapers and magazines themselves struggling to maintain a physical presence.
As I put it in a short poem “Shuttered Windows”:
“To speak of the smell and feel / of books, the erotics of the text, / has begun to sound perverse. / One by one, the old places of worship/ become quaint and are vacated/ In their stead a gleaming, ambitious screen”.
Yet, I am beginning to see the error of my ways, and realize the patent folly in being a self-defeating Luddite. I don’t read on Kindle, but four of my books are available, electronically, and I hope that others do! I do read, rabidly, articles, essays, reviews, you name it, on my smart phone and computer, and even wrote my first i-phone poem not too long ago – when forced to check in my bag at New York’s MET museum, and left only with “a gleaming, ambitious screen” to record my impressions.
Which is to say that, as I gingerly enter my fifth (!) decade, I am making a kind of peace with the virtual world. It’s all just wrapping paper, I tell myself, whether paperback or electronic. What matters is the gift inside, the words themselves – that they are read and people connect.
So, it seems that the world itself is now migrating online. Fine, I’ll work with it. Not just for survival’s sake must we stoop to engage with this brave new world, but also because it’s spiritually foolish to condescend. I have friends, writer friends only slightly older than myself, who regard things like Twitter and Facebook as infra dig, insisting that they “mean us harm”. I get it, or a part of me does. But, the other part, doesn’t. It might be virtual, but it’s still real people in real time. Managed judiciously, that is to say with intelligence and care, it’s simply too great a learning experience to pass up.
Wherever people congregate, en masse, for sustenance – such as the great communal wells of social media – we must pay attention. Real friendships are forged in these virtual communities, vital news shared, and that most elusive thing of all, inspiration, sparked from so many souls colliding in wonder and thirst for human contact. And, yes, I remain aware of the many serious dangers: the regrettable narcissism networking engenders, the cluttering of our inner spaces, the real and paradoxical isolation that results from so much online “socializing” as well as the attendant erosion of social skills and, no less importantly, the damage to our attention spans.
Particularly, in regards to how the Internet can detrimentally affect our concentration, meaning our capacity for immersive reading and/or critical thinking, I remember being set alight a few years ago by an Atlantic magazine article (which the author, Nicholas Carr, developed into a fine book). The title of the piece encapsulated all my misgivings, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?: What the internet is doing to our brains”. Shortly after this seminal, but somewhat alarmist, piece, a slew of articles, backed by scientific studies, made a counter argument: Google and the Internet might be making us smarter. True, multi-tasking stands to make memory worse, they suggested, but certain types of memory are improving as search engines reroute our brains.
“Abundance of books makes men less studious” stated a critic of the printing press, Hieronimo Squarciafico, as early as the 15th century. This might well be the case today, too, with the wealth of unsorted, uneven information available at our fingertips. Yet, perhaps this truth also speaks to our innate laziness as a species, rather than the evils of abundance. For those with discipline and curiosity to sift through the buried treasures (as well as the sanity not to entirely live online), the Internet need not be a soul-destroying monster but can be, potentially, a life-enhancing tool.
Growing up in Cairo, Egypt I was surrounded by a love of language. So, it came as no surprise to me, for example, when our Revolution erupted in 2011 that masses of peaceful protesters chose to express their dissent and dreams in poetry, chanted jubilantly from Tahrir Square. Wit and verse were always sport, and a kind of national pastime, during the three decades I lived in Egypt. Never mind that around 50 percent of the population were actually illiterate; it wasn’t about being book-smart. “Knowledge is what’s in your head, not in your notebooks” an Egyptian saying shrewdly justified (in Arabic, it rhymes, too: el 3elm fil rass mish fil korras).
Which is to say, proverbs were always our street poetry as well as philosophy. They were our oral tradition and inherited wisdom, rescuing keen psychological insights from the past, and passing it onto future generations, as shortcuts to hard-won experience or observations. Proverbs can be like coral reef, that way, fossils of ancient philosophies merging with living truths. Good aphorisms aspire to this type of wisdom literature, as well.
Only recently, am I beginning to fully realize what it means to have been raised in this culture where aphorisms were viewed as both common utterance and a sort of magical invocation. I grew up with grandmothers, both maternal and paternal who, at times, spoke almost exclusively in such sayings - a string of proverbs, sing-songy, witty-wise remarks, for every occasion. Also, being half-Lebanese myself, meant that Gibran Khalil Gibran, popular poet and philosopher, was an early and inescapable influence. I even suspect such matters of stylistic heritage might have been written in blood, since I was named after my paternal grandfather (Yahia Lababidi), a musician and poet, who passed away long before I was born, yet passed onto me a love of song, intravenously. When, in my late teens, I found that I could unburden myself in verse and aphorism I felt that, for the first time, I was beginning to earn my name.
Lately, in the United States at least, there seems to be an Aphoristic Renaissance - something I would never have imagined when I first started writing them (anachronistically, I felt) over 20 years ago. The practitioners of the contemporary American aphorism tend to be poets, and bring to them a poetic sensibility. This November, I’m pleased to be part of an anthology, Short Flights (Schaffner Press), which draws together the work and musings of 32 leading pioneers of short-form writing. I’m especially proud to be in the company of writers I respect and admire, many of whom have become friends and helped me take my first literary steps, such as: James Richardson, James Geary, Alfred Corn, H.L. Hix - as well as the editors of this exciting project, Alex Stein (with whom I’ve also collaborated on a book of ecstatic conversations, The Artist as Mystic) and James Lough, both fine aphorists in their own right.
Over the past 5 years, Tom Clark has been quietly publishing some of the best work of his life (which is saying a lot). I identify the following books of poems:
Feeling for the Ground (BlazeVOX, 2010)
Something in the Air (Shearsman, 2010)
At the Fair (BlazeVOX, 2010)
Canyonesque (BlazeVOX, 2011)
Distance (BlazeVOX, 2012)
The Truth Game (BlazeVOX, 2013)
Evening Train (BlazeVOX, 2014)
There may be others. These seven books account for some six hundred plus pages of poetry that see Clark deeply investing his earliest poetics with a hard-hitting concision in the facture, combined with a wistful yet ultimately optimistic sense of observation. This observation can take place in the poet’s immediate neighborhood, the changing fabric of north Berkeley, where he lives with his wife, Angelica, or it can travel the universe, via Clark’s omnivorous reading and wide-ranging research. He uses his knowledge knowingly, that is, specific details are marshaled in the service of a deeper message, delivered with wit and sophistication.
There is much that is elegiac in the tone of these poems, but the emphasis on the mind thinking and the eloquence with which these tonalities are orchestrated add up to an experience that is terrifically energizing. The way Clark uses line-endings and continuations is unerringly precise. We know we are in the presence of a master. Here is an example, the poem “To a Certain Friend,” from Something in the Air:
Presence comes before everything, even before being
The you to whom everything once belonged
If by everything one means the fullness of nature’s beauty
You must remember now that much has been taken from you
Grief too will go from you as from sorrowing songs
Sorrow goes, leaving nothing for you after a while
But the memory of the melody, some old familiar tune
That’s lingered on long past the moment you first sailed
Gracefully into the room, as if all the modern languages
Were coming down to me so that I could say these things
Then there are poems that are haiku-like in their brevity, American takes on the immediate and the passing, such as “Fame” from At the Fair:
A hot dog paper blows across
the infield, passing into
shadows near third base.
Other poems register, in language that becomes surprisingly activated, a particular scene observed. One such poem is “Full Moon through Clouds” from Canyonesque:
the brief deep blue middle
of the night window
between the third
and fourth in a series
of cold Pacific storms
through an opening
in the flotilla of big
low rain saturated
city light pink underside
a brilliant full moon
Some of Clark’s observations take place on the web, and those familiar with his blog Beyond the Pale can attest to his acuity in combining words with carefully researched images. Here’s one example, a poem embedded within a series of images, Clark’s usual posting technique. This time, the poem comes from painter Jim Dine:
And Clark himself adds a comment:
“In case it doesn't totally go without saying, there are a lot of poems in this giant poem of Jim's, and a lot of meanings, Jim's, yours, mine — and he's open to all of them, of course.
Sometimes an incorrect educated guess is the only thing that will get you through the night.
Had stubbornly thought maybe somebody would get up the nerve to pip a squeak about the poem, think it's great, hate it, have a feeling, one way or another, as in — whatever, like, don't like, am confused by, but — dream on, old timer.
Pretty obvious that at least the hosts here (okay, boring old people, but we get to think things too, nothing so smart as the thoughts of the idiot young, but still) were impressed, honoured, grateful.
The psychogeographic mapping power, gestural energy and emotional drive of the thing, remarkable.
To entertain the weird idea that poems should mean or say anything at all about anything real, or have anything at all real buried within them, or should deserve and earn and receive actual serious attention, before being filed under whatever idle categorical predisposition, is, of itself, a sort of violation of the current way of things — too demanding, like. To be serious, to mean something, to admit to and attempt to honestly articulate strong feeling — total no-no's nowadays, ask any ambitious junior professor anywhere.
Tonight I went up to Columbia for the opening of “The Book Undone: Thirty Years of Granary Books” at the Kempner Gallery Rare Book & Manuscript Library on the sixth floor of Butler Library. It is worth the trip! Curated by Sarah Arkebauer and Karla Nielsen, the exhibition includes about one third of the astounding 164 books Granary (proprietor, Steve Clay) has published since beginning operations in 1985. Some of the earliest Granary publications seemed to pick up from the tradition of Jonathan Williams’ Jargon Books, which got its start in the early 1950s at Black Mountain College, at the instigation of Charles Olson, who told Williams, “Don’t ever be intimidated by the disdain or the disinterest of the world. Get yourself some type, get yourself some paper, and print it.” This statement could serve as the motto for the Mimeo Revolution that flourished in the 1960s and ‘70s and was a mainstay for the dissemination of poetry that had small but passionate followings. In its early days, Granary published books by Williams, Fielding Dawson, and John Cage, all of them with BMC credentials. Granary is also devoted to the Mimeo Revolution itself, as anyone who saw the inspiring 1998 exhibition at the New York Public Library will remember. Clay and Rodney Phillips, a curator at the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, organized the exhibition, and they co-edited the accompanying book, published by Granary: A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960-1980, which documents many of the poetry zines of that era and the poets and artists who created them. This book should be required reading, and it probably is in the most advanced literature classes around the country and beyond.
As time went on, Granary’s interests expanded to include such artists and writers as (and this is only a selection!) (in roughly chronological order) Johanna Drucker, Buzz Spector, Susan Bee, Lewis Warsh, Jerome Rothenberg, Kimberly Lyons, Robert Creeley, Alex Katz, Charles Bernstein, Anne Waldman, Ted Berrigan, George Schneeman, Joe Elliot, Julie Harrison, Carolee Schneemann, Bernadette Mayer, Lyn Hejinian, Emilie Clark, Pierre Joris, Larry Fagin, Trevor Winkfield, William Corbett, Clark Coolidge, Keith Waldrop, Kenward Elmslie, Alison Knowles, Joe Brainard, Susan Howe, David Antin, Emily McVarish, Kenneth Goldsmith, Gary Sullivan, Nada Gordon, Simon Pettet, Duncan Hannah, Leslie Scalapino, Marina Adams, Anne Tardos, Ron Padgett, Maureen Owen, Yvonne Jacquette, John Yau, Archie Rand, Bob Perelman, Francie Shaw, Norma Cole, Alice Notley, Alan Halsey, Steve McCaffery, Marjorie Welish, James Siena, Jen Bervin, John Ashbery, Kiki Smith, Kathleen Fraser, Hermine Ford, Ceclia Vicuña, Edward Sanders, Raphael Rubinstein.
(Page from Johanna Drucker and Susan Bee's A Girl's Life, Granary Books, 2002)
Granary’s books are remarkable because each one is unique in design. Clay has a sixth sense for knowing which approach — whether trade edition or limited edition artist’s book — is appropriate for each outing, and he knows exactly how to achieve the end he and his collaborators have in mind. Often, these structures are teasing what can conceivably be considered a book, and yet they are all books. Above all, the central character is complicity. This is a tradition of people working outside the mainstream, banding together to make poetry books in exactly the form, size, and quantity they desire. The installation is exquisite. The three dimensional and tactile qualities are exposed for all to see, to examine, to admire, to enjoy, and to learn from. Take a trip to Columbia. Your senses will be energized.
I am thinking about time, how it divides and separates. I have been attempting to locate myself in the present, and I think I am getting better at it, but it is hard work. The mind wants to slip back into the past, to glory over supposed triumphs and fret over past defeats — or to pump itself up over things it is looking forward to or cower over things it is apprehensive about. Yeah, you know the drill. But to be in the present, when one can achieve it, is a gift to oneself, and ultimately to everyone else as well. Meditation is a practice for this, and so is going to poetry readings.
I’ll always remember an early poem of Anne Waldman’s called “Things That Make Me Nervous” — and the entire poem reads “Poetry readings. / People. / Dope. / Things I really like.” Which, back in the day, all went together. I looked up the poem and found it in Waldman’s collection Baby Breakdown, published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1970. It was in a period when major publishing houses thought it made sense to go with the zeitgeist and try publishing some far-out poetry, almost as though they were record companies, gambling that one of these books could be the Next Big Thing. Others in this class include Ron Padgett’s Great Balls of Fire, published by Holt Rinehart and Winston in 1969, and Tom Clark’s Stones, pubished by Harper & Row, also in 1969. These were hardcover publications with dust jackets and very sharp design, seemingly because the decisions were left to the poets. Joe Brainard blanketed Padgett’s book with white stars on a royal blue jacket, cover and endpapers. His hand-lettering of the title and author’s name is exquisite. Clark’s book also has jacket design by Brainard, in this case a large piece of yellow swiss cheese on a black background with the author’s name on the vertical axis. Brainard also contributes a blurb, which begins, “Ron Padgett is a poet. He always has been a poet and he always will be a poet. I don't know how a poet becomes a poet. And I don’t think anyone else does either…” Ted Berrigan’s “liner notes” for Waldman’s book are typically effusive. He starts out casually, “Anne Waldman is easily the most exciting poet of her generation, and Anne and her poems are among the great pleasures of everyone’s generation. Half the population of America is under 25, and Anne Waldman, at the age of 25, is a star. It seems she can do anything, and she has, and does …” Later, he adds something as true today as it was in 1970: “She has altered all our lives for the better simply by her presence, for she is no wielder of power, but simply a presence that permits everybody to be themselves and more often than not their best selves in the world…” He concludes, “This book is an ordinary miracle.” I love that Berrigan dated this blurb, printed on the book’s dustjacket folds, “May 18, 1970.” Baby Breakdown is really a far out book! The half-title and title page are hand-drawn by Waldman, and the inside of the book also features experimental typography and layout.
Tonight I heard two poets reading their poetry, Bobby Byrd, from El Paso, Texas, and Todd Colby, from Brooklyn, and they both, in very different ways brought me back into the sound of a human voice. That seems obvious, but it’s not. Too many times, at readings, there’s a different sense, an overriding thought, usually, of how is this going to come off, what’s my percentage in it, the calculation of a laugh, or a particular point of view that will give the poem, or more to the point, the poet, support. Poetry doesn’t work like that, nor do poets. First of all, it has to be about the poem, or the poetry, not the poet. Not that poets are not glamorous, fascinating, and fun to look at. And not to deny that they are the authors of their work. But there has to be a moment in the reading when you forget all about the poet, who they are, where they live, what they are wearing, who’s that sitting in the back row, and you are left floating, coasting on a wave of words that takes you to a place you simply could not have imagined before you came to the reading.
An artist who does not like to comment on her own prolific work, Lera Auerbach answers query with further creative output. “When I was told, you can’t be a composer and a pianist, I started to paint,” says the now thirty-something Russian-American pianist, composer, visual artist, and poet.
Literature and poetry were always part of Auerbach’s artistic inspiration and definitely an integral part of her creative DNA. Auerbach has published three books of poetry in Russian, selected works of which have been recited publicly in performances by Gerard Depardieu, Sergey Yursky, and Evgeny Kissin. In 1996, the International Pushkin Society of New York named her Poet of the Year, and her poetry and prose is included in textbooks mandatory for schoolchildren in her native Russia.
Alongside several of her own librettos, Auerbach contributes her column Trouble Clef, to this site. Her first English publication is entitled Excess of Being. A collection of aphorisms, some of which occasionally appear in Trouble Clef, it is a spontaneous work in progress collected over three years, which, compiled into eight chapters, integrates and comments on different aspects of life.
Coupled with some 120 oil-on-rusted metal works made from antique roof tiles that Auerbach found in an architectural salvage store, the book completes a body of work Auerbach felt was forging its way for some time.
Originally approached by her publisher about a book of prose, the plan changed quickly; as aphorisms continually appeared, the author kept collecting, jotting down her thoughts in a notebook she kept next to her bed whenever inspiration struck. “Early on I felt there was something else that wanted to come out,” a feeling Auerbach will always foster while writing, or composing.
It is in the editing and grouping process, an intense period of structuring by condensing, that Auerbach’s more evaluative shaping takes place. The visual art element of her work started out similarly impulsively before becoming an integral and defining part of the book. She fell in love with the characteristics of the raw and rusty material, and the 19th century tiles’ alluring time-worn aesthetic. “There is beauty in the spontaneity of creating,” says Auerbach, seeing strong connections between her visual art and her work as a pianist and composer. “Not unlike in performance, there is a certain spontaneity involved in the creative process. You can’t correct yourself with this unusual technique. You can only keep it as is, or discard it. That takes an inner freedom and courage. You can’t be afraid of making a mistake.”
It is through her selection, the grouping of raw material, that the artist establishes the framework and context of the larger work – and here again she feels exist many similarities to the way she composes. Auerbach originally wanted to include her existing artwork, but felt the need to create a special series of visual artwork, ingraining her words, and giving a unifying structure to her writing. Her original work now only accompanies the titles of her chapters. “The overall form is always very important for me; even a collection of shorter pieces, similar to a collection of Preludes, must receive a solid shape,” she claims.
“A book of Aphorisms is a rather strange genre: it may seem similar to poetry but it’s also very different in how I relate to it. Excess of Being is based on a Rainer Maria Rilke poem.” Auerbach quotes: “‘Excess of being wells up in my heart…’ Rilke was fascinated with Russian language. I edited some of his Russian poems, because I felt there was so much beautiful imagery with an awkward use of language,” she says. She follows: “It gave me great joy working on it, I loved the process.”
Many of Auerbach’s grand scale scores embrace dramatic fairytales, often willed by the artist’s own romantic mindset, but with an ingenious message of their own: “It is irrelevant how you feel,” says Auerbach, “what matters is the work itself. You tune yourself to be the instrument of your creation, the work writes itself. I make the grand plan, but then I let it go, and very often, the work turns out differently than I had originally perceived it, and I allow it to be,” she says. The process of her own artistic creativity is at the heart of her contemplation and observation, and often shows up in her most original scores. It is perhaps precisely because of her distinctive eye for its conceptual framework and orchestrated architecture that Auerbach’s aphoristic shorthand becomes true commentary. “Dying from a paper cut,” the author remarks on her own, sometimes overwhelming, struggle with the little things in life. Depicting occurrences and observations stemming from everyday life, to love, to music, her words – perhaps best pondered upon in small dosage – offer some truism in coming to terms with life’s excess by making it into art.
Click through to read the poem and see the illustrations. Click on the individual image to see it in high resolution (they're spectacular! sdh)
The Ugly Stepsister
You don't know what it was like.
My mother marries this bum who takes off on us,
after only a few months, leaving his little Cinderella
behind. Oh yes, Cindy will try to tell you
that her father died. She's like that, she's a martyr.
But between you and me, he took up
with a dame close to Cindy's age.
My mother never got a cent out of him
for child support. So that explains
why sometimes the old lady was gruff.
My sisters and I didn't mind Cindy at first,
but her relentless cheeriness soon took its toll.
She dragged the dirty clothes to one of Chelsea's
many laundromats. She was fond of talking
to mice and rats on the way. She loved doing dishes
and scrubbing walls, taking phone messages,
and cleaning toilet bowls. You know,
the kind of woman that makes the rest
of us look bad. My sisters and I
weren't paranoid, but we couldn't help
but see this manic love for housework
as part of Cindy's sinister plan. Our dates
would come to pick us up and Cindy'd pop out
of the kitchen offering warm chocolate chip cookies.
Critics often point to the fact that my sisters and I
were dark and she was blonde, implying
jealousy on our part. But let me
set the record straight. We have the empty bottles
of Clairol's Nice'n Easy to prove
Cindy was a fake. She was what her shrink called
a master manipulator. She loved people
to feel bad for her-her favorite phrase was a faint,
"I don't mind. That's OK." We should have known
she'd marry Jeff Charming, the guy from our high school
who went on to trade bonds. Cindy finagled her way
into a private Christmas party on Wall Street,
charging a little black dress at Barney's,
which she would have returned the next day
if Jeff hadn't fallen head over heels.
She claimed he took her on a horse-and-buggy ride
through Central Park, that it was the most romantic
evening of her life, even though she was home
before midnight-a bit early, if you ask me, for Manhattan.
It turned out that Jeff was seeing someone else
and had to cover his tracks. But Cindy didn't
let little things like another woman's happiness
get in her way. She filled her glass slipper
with champagne she had lifted
from the Wall Street extravaganza. She toasted
to Mr. Charming's coming around, which he did
soon enough. At the wedding, some of Cindy's friends
looked at my sisters and me with pity. The bride insisted
that our bridesmaids' dresses should be pumpkin,
which is a hard enough color for anyone to carry off.
But let me assure you, we're all very happy
now that Cindy's moved uptown. We've
started a mail order business-cosmetics
and perfumes. Just between you and me,
there's quite a few bucks to be made
on women's self-doubts. And though
we don't like to gloat, we hear Cindy Charming
isn't doing her aerobics anymore. It's rumored
that she yells at the maid, then locks herself in her room,
pressing hot match tips into her palm.
"The Ugly Stepsister," by Denise Duhamel from Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press). Denise is the author of numerous collections of poetry. She was guest editor of The Best American Poetry 2013.
Ellen Amaral studied Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania. She combines pencil sketches and digital paint to create strange and slightly perverted images. Ellen currently resides in Washington, DC as a graphic designer.
An idea for a work has the sole purpose of getting me into the studio—it has very little to do with what the final thing will look like. The intriguing idea will be swallowed quickly into the hard realities and limitations of materials and skills, and the fluidity of mood, vision, and chance.
When I let go of the original motivation something I couldn’t have imagined will come out of the process. The unimaginable whispers, pulls me like gravity. In fear, I resist it as well. But I’ve learned that if the process scares me enough it just might offer value. The work shapes me as much as I shape the work.
How To Begin
How do I begin, then, with no image of what I’m making? I get excited about the parts and pieces I’ve gathered or made. I wonder what they’ll look like in relationship. I begin in order to find out what I can only know by making it. The truth is in there.
I proceed with curiosity and intuition, trying relationships until something says “yes” (or “what the hell.”) That has to be enough. I take a stand, trust, weld the first two bits together.
There is no top, bottom, front or back, still no larger vision. Two unique pieces, union: the first push back against entropy—temporary but bold. Then I ask where the next one goes, and make another choice. Now there are three. Relationships start talking to me. Riffs on those add harmony and dissonance. I still know only a little about where this is taking me, but I’m underway in the unknown.
My first conscious dip into partnership with the work in this way was with a wooden piece, ten years ago. It wasn’t my first sculpture, but it was the first time I began without an image or drawings to work toward. I had some tapering scraps of mahogany from a furniture project, and, an idea about what might happen if I glued them together at slight angles to one another. A thing happened. (I wish I had a photo of the clamping arrangement. It was nuts trying to hold it all together while the glue set up.)
I smoothed and carved it, though I still had no idea about what it was—or even if it was finished. How would I know? I wondered if it was part of something larger, body sculpture that needed a harness, maybe something to be cut up and reassembled further.
The piece was so successful as an unrecognizable new thing that I didn’t know how to relate to it, didn’t know what I had achieved. It was perfectly useless and didn’t bring anything but itself to mind. It stood on the back bench all winter. When I had a gallery show the next spring I needed one more piece. I oiled it, titled it “Becoming Visible” and put it on a pedestal. Watching the public response I began to realize what the process had made visible to me.
I installed a recent steel sculpture last week on the docks here, for the city’s Percival Plinth Project. Like many communities, Olympia asks artists to submit sculpture ideas. They rent the ones they like for a year to grace the boardwalks of the Percival Landing waterfront. Each year the city buys the one that gets the most votes in an August public poll.
My offering for the plinths this year is called CULTURE/ Ring Dance #10—obviously, the tenth in a series. OPENING (#9) was there last year. #11 is underway but doesn’t have a name yet. In honor of the double “ones” I’m returning to what I liked best about the first one: simplicity. I love the complexity that has evolved through the series, but there can be something scintillating about a simple gesture. Full circle—maybe that’s the name.
I feel the vertical lineage in the process all the way back to “Becoming Visible,” and beyond that the thirty years of woodwork and life that landed me at a crucial sidestep.
(Ed note: this is the final post in Anna Cypra Oliver's series about writing and painting. Find yesterday's post here. sdh.)
A family legend grew up around my grandfather, which told of his genius as an artist and how his profound talent was never fully realized because he chose to take a job designing logos and letterhead for his father-in-law’s paper products manufacturing company. At a very young age, my grandfather acquired a reputation in his native Chile as a watercolor caricaturist—his work appeared frequently as illustrations for news stories and, in the early 1920s, when he himself was only in his early twenties, El Murcurio, Santiago’s premier newspaper, staged an exhibition of his work in its galleries. My grandmother loved to tell how he was greeted by a brass band and a length of red carpet on his return to Santiago in 1940 for his mother’s funeral. “The great artiste,” the crowd exclaimed, “Juan Olivér has come home!” We worshipped him, not just because he was a wonderful person, though he was, but because he was an artist, a mysterious being touched by the God in whose existence we claimed (except for my mother) not to believe.
Juan’s best work was produced in New York in the 1930s, before and in the early years of his relationship with my grandmother. Sensual wood sculpture, blatantly sexual nudes, economical pencil sketches of landscapes and of Rose. It is also the work in which his Chilean origins are most evident: gauchos on horseback, tangoing couples, guitar-playing men with brown faces and handle-bar mustaches abound. Later, his painting and sculpture became derivative of Cubist Picasso and Juan Gris, a point where my grandfather stuck, working in this vocabulary well into the 1960s and 70s.
Perhaps it is no surprise that his production of these poor imitations coincides with his years as a designer for The Warshaw Manufacturing Company, Nathan’s company, a job Juan took in the late 1930s or early 1940s, in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Until then he'd made a living by creating book jacket art and sophisticated advertisements that appeared above his own signature in publications such as The New Yorker, McCall's, and Playbill, before the advent of cheap and gritty photography and the economic bust made his sort of hand-drawn commercial work harder and harder to get. Who can blame him for wanting more security, especially having become, at forty, a husband and father? Nor is it surprising that despite my grandmother’s repetition of the brass band and red carpet story and the deep sound of regret with which she told it, how he abandoned his career as an artist “just as he was beginning to make a name for himself in New York,” it was surely she who most wished for him to take a job in her father’s company, just as it was she who wanted the family to move from the city to the suburbs. And yet, blaming her is too easy. He was a good man with tremendous talent, but he didn’t have the commitment or the discipline or the courage to go all the way. He had no stomach, for one thing, for the business of art, the need for hustle and self-promotion, and anyway, according to my mother and a close cousin, he hated to part with his work. Maybe, like many who are trained as children to be concert pianists or pro tennis players, he broke off, deciding that he didn’t have the goods to be great.
I recognized all this only later, two decades after his death, with the jaundiced eye of an adult who had by then visited many museums and learned, as well, to distrust family mythologies. Among his late work are many nice paintings and several compelling grid-like sculptures on which my brother and I drove our Matchbox cars as children, pretending the structures were city streets—sophisticated decorations for a suburban living room, yes; great work, no. Saying so, as I did to my mother while helping to clear out my grandmother’s apartment after her death, felt like a bold move, a need to speak the truth, and at the same time, a treason, but my mother, who loved her father more than anyone in the world, vindicated my impulse by agreeing. It was still bratty of me. Why did I feel the need to hack away the clay of my own idol’s feet?
The truth is that I adored my grandfather, but it was my grandmother’s intellectual fire that was my touchstone. My grandfather was almost always silent, while she never stopped discussing, analyzing, arguing, pronouncing. It was she that I most wanted to be like: the well-read woman with a hundred razor-sharp opinions. While my grandfather embodied my idea of art, my grandmother represented the life of the mind, and the life of the mind to me—to her, I think—meant words as much as ideas. Though it feels dangerous even now to say so, a betrayal of my grandfather and a confession of profound philistinism, I looked at art and was moved, but I never understood it as anything earth-shattering or world-changing or even hard, something that the hands and the brain had to wrestle with the soul to produce, Jacob in a death struggle with the angel of God. The beauty of art struck me. It sometimes made me draw a sharp breath. I admired it. But it didn’t shatter me. Only language could do that. Poetry makes nothing happen, Auden says in his great poem, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” I was young when I read those words for the first time: I closed my eyes in anguish, the thought and the words that gave voice to it equally seismic. And then, from the illustrious poet, a reprieve that swept through me like a cataract, even if I couldn’t entirely grasp what he meant, beyond allowing that poetry did in fact matter, if only as a way to bear witness: …/From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,/ Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,/ A way of happening, a mouth. Oh!
Or perhaps the explanation lies in the use Juan has been put to by the family: as a yardstick with which to smack the groping fingers of the rest of us. More than once I’ve made the mistake of showing relatives my paintings and drawings, wanting to share, a woman well into her thirties (and now forties) childishly seeking approval and praise, but getting instead the severe judgment of an art jury. “That’s dead,” a cousin of my mother’s generation pronounced on a still life I’d executed in the first weeks of painting class, one whose sense of light and sure depiction of subject had previously made me proud. “These are good drawings,” my great aunt Anna said carefully of a portfolio I’d brought to show her and my great uncle before lunch one day, “but they’re tight.” Anna held a master’s degree in chemistry, but had spent her life as an amateur printmaker and sculptor. She admired the fractures and dissolutions of modern art—keen renderings of an orchid and its shadow on a windowsill didn’t do a thing for her. I had seen the look of disappointment on her face, the effort it cost her to say something kind. She passed over without comment the drawings that were my favorites, glanced impassively at my academic renderings of sculpture at the Metropolitan, and expressed enthusiasm only for a sheet of five minute sketches—a self-imposed time limit to loosen my hand—that I’d done with Stephan a few weeks before. “It looks like you’re spending a lot of time doing this,” she said. “Have you given up writing?” And in her tone, I thought I heard her say, Honey, don’t quit your day job.
I wasn’t proposing to go to art school or to devote myself to a career in art. I didn’t even want to be anything more than a good amateur painter, but her words hurt me nonetheless. (And, of course, I barely registered the approval of my grandmother, implicit in her suggestion that I make a second career of art, or of another cousin, the one to have become a successful and highly respected printmaker, who boldly announced that I had talent, that I should absolutely, definitely keep going.)
Maybe all I wanted was the mantle, even if I now deemed it a little tattered: it’s obvious, my dear, you are Juan Oliver’s granddaughter.
PAINTING AND WRITING
My family’s criticisms and judgments ricocheted around my mind. They tagged me like blue paint, leaving their residue everywhere. But this time they didn’t stop me. I kept going into the studio. I kept painting. Their voices sank below the level of consciousness as I worked, drowned by shape, washed away by magenta, by golden ochre, by just the right shade of plummy gray. Bob Dylan groaned, How does it feel? and they grew quiet. They did not become screeching birds on my shoulder. Perhaps I had less at stake here, less to lose than I did as a writer. I still loved the paint. I still didn’t much care whether the effort took me anywhere or whether there was anything to it beyond the physical act of this stroke, that triangle of pale apricot that was in fact an elbow.
But work leads to work; idea begets idea. Somewhere along the way, as I kept on painting, something else began to happen: the words began to creep back. Often, it was the evocative language of painting itself, echoing in my mind: Bonnard’s Blue, Payne’s Gray, every brushstroke defines a gesture. I began an odd still life of a large live lobster perched on a shiny stainless steel pot, compelled by the shape of its defiantly held head and the amazing range of blues and greens and mustards in its shell. Consider the lobster, I thought. And then, paintbrush in hand, carving the creature’s tail, I began to remember an experience I’d had, trying to make an elaborate lobster soufflé with an elderly friend. The experience began to form itself into story. It took on weight, it developed significance, other elements jostled their way into the narrative. Rich as oil paint, solid as the crustacean materializing on the painted surface in front of me, the words appeared on the canvas of my mind. The black bird made no comment. I cocked my ear, listening for it, but it was finally silent. I sat down to write an essay and for the first time in many years, remained there, ass in the chair, until it was done. http://inquisitiveeater.com/2014/09/03/stans-madeleine/
All images Copyright © 1999 Estate of Juan and Rose Oliver
(Ed note: This is the fourth in a series by Anna Cypra Oliver. Find yesterday's post here. sdh)
I keep at it, after the first course ends, and a second, as Stephan drifts back to pens and watercolor. For years, a few hours a day, I keep on. I slow down, become more meticulous, more willing to set up properly and to take the time needed to prep a canvas. I set up a studio with a proper exhaust fan and dress carefully each time before starting.
I get better, acquiring the competence that comes with simple slogging on. At first, I obsessively paint flowers in 12x12 squares. Then the canvases start to get bigger: 30x30, 36x48, and the subjects more complex: a ketchup bottle on a NYC diner table, interiors bisected by light and shadow. I love it, in a way that I once loved words, which I have essentially stopped trying to set down.
I don’t have a philosophy of painting, no grand vision of art in the twenty-first century. As a painter I’m exactly what I was as a writer: a documentarian, a literalist. In writing the actual attracts me—overheard dialogue, found details, people’s life stories—though not in any kind of whole cloth way; my interest is in framing and selecting, seeing the resonances between one element and another. My approach to art is even simpler: something attracts my notice, and I paint it. I’m drawn to bright colors, the curvy organic shapes of things like chairs and bowls and flowers, the splash of light on a wall. Nothing that would win space in a gallery in Chelsea. I paint what I see, or try to, though I have gotten better at leaving things out; I also try hard to see light and shadow, something most neophyte painters fail to capture. Like most people of my class and background I’ve been trained to feel a little disdain for any representational art, no matter how masterful, but I can’t for the life of me seem to abstract anything on canvas myself, something about which I always feel defensive. My inspirations are Vuillard, Bonnard, Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher, but I can rarely achieve even their softness of focus. I draw lines
as straight as I can. I’m fixated on accuracy. Maybe that’s just the learning curve. A handful of classes and sketching with Stephan constitutes the whole of my art education. Because I have little formal training I’m still just trying to get my hand to obey my eye. People with backgrounds in art are always telling me that perspective is not important, that formal training can be deadening, but I want to gain enough command to be able to break a line by intention rather than pure amateurishness. A deep knowledge of grammar seems to me a prerequisite for being a writer—when I fracture a sentence, I usually know I’m doing it. Why should painting be any different? Picasso could render a plaster bust so precisely that it seemed three dimensional. De Kooning once said of his wildly fragmented women, “A classical educationfreed me to do this.”
My mind when I paint seems strangely blank, attentive to color and light and shape, but otherwise—empty. It’s an emptiness akin to meditation. I’m a restive person, always needing a project or in a stew about something I’ve heard on the news, unable to sit still for five minutes at a time or nap because the moment I lie down I start to fret about the ten other things I need to be doing. But painting gives me sanctuary from my own restlessness. Often, it takes time to get to that place, to let my usual agitation and anxiety drift to the bottom of consciousness, allowing the sensual squish of paint to take over. Once achieved, two to three hours can pass without a worry except whether I’ve mixed a color correctly.
Maybe “empty” is not quite apt. Shape fills my mind. What is the shape of that shadow? I hear my instructor Sonya saying. Don’t paint an elbow: paint the shape of an elbow. Carve the spaces between things. And songs often pipe themselves through my head, which is strange because I have only the most modest interest in music and rarely play any. “How does it feel,” Bob Dylan suddenly demands to know, “to be on your own?” Or Burl Ives croons, “Fare thee well, O honey…” and then, out of nowhere: “She’ll have fun fun fun till her daddy takes the T-Bird away…”
Color, too, occupies my thoughts. Ochre mixed with cadmium orange mixed with Naples yellow light creates a lovely Caucasian flesh tone. Add a bit of umber to darken it down or a dash of burnt sienna to warm it. That blue—almost cornflower! How in the world do I mix that precise shade of blue?
I used to have words in my head this way, a running loop of sentences that I would memorize if I couldn’t immediately write them down, but for the moment the images crowd out other forms of mental dialogue. Even when I sit down with a book, the letters on the page develop shadows and halos, as if they are objects to be painted, rather than words to be read. The demands of image, for the moment, seem to be exerting greater force on me than the demands of text.
The question of being good inevitably enters: am I any good? As I paint, I find myself wondering if I have talent, if I could “be a painter.” A great painter? To that I already know the answer: no. I don’t have the drive, the imagination or the kind of passion required. Were it my calling and I brilliant at it, I would have been hard at work long ago. But how about a good one? At the moment, my main goal is still to capture the world realistically, to learn, essentially, to see. It’s all about craft and the building blocks—a grammar that needs to be mastered before any rules are broken—not any decision I’ve made about whether I want to paint figuratively or otherwise. But still, to immerse myself in the medium, to keep going at the pace I’ve recently set, it seems necessary to have the potential to be more than a Sunday painter. The challenge of that possibility motivates me, though, at the same time, I wonder at the recurrence of the question in my mind.
At a dinner party not long ago, I proceeded to tell the painter seated next to me how much pleasure I got out of oil painting. She too had enjoyed it once, she loftily replied, but that was before she started waking up every morning with the weight of all of art history on her shoulders. I sat back in my chair. The weight of all of art history? This woman may have been a world-class artist for all I knew, but my hackles rose at the utter pretension of her tone. Oh, I said, I’m not concerned with all of art history—I only aspire to sell to decorators and tourists. If even that, I could have added. If even that. But she had already given me a thin, cold smile and turned to speak to the diner on her other side.
The need to professionalize is in our culture—witness the tendency of little boys now to go to five-day-a-week summer football camps and to play on Little League teams whose games are broadcast on national television—but in my family, where it ran with such a hot current that my mother became a hippie and then an ardent Christian to escape it, it can still be traced to the old first-generation immigrant drive to succeed, as well as the fierce hunger and the equally fierce pride that makes some people crave distinction. Years ago, I shared a selection of travel sketches with my grandmother Rose. She exclaimed over them, thought they showed talent—there was the clear evidence of Juan Oliver in my blood, the highest compliment that could be paid in my family. “Well,” she mused, “maybe you could have a second career as an artist.” This took me completely aback. They were just nice little sketches that I did with Stephan two or three times a year on a trip. Why must the question of career even enter it?
But she was like that. She hated that for years my mother worked as a secretary in the church in which I grew up—menial work, in her mind, demeaning—but was genuinely delighted when my mother became a licensed minister. It could never assuage the hurt she felt at her daughter having become a Christian, but a degree, that at least was something she could understand. Her daughter no longer seemed to be throwing her life away. It was also something she could crow about to other people. She could say, My daughter, the Reverend, just as she had long said, My son, the Ph.D.—or slipped in the “Dr.” in front of her own name, a title of which she was justly proud, having earned a Ph.D. in psychology at the age of sixty-three. Sitting next to me in the car outside my mother’s house in upstate New York, waiting for my mother to come out so we could go somewhere to celebrate the newly conferred degree, my grandmother suddenly said, half to herself, “We’re all full of honors in this family,” and sighed with satisfaction. Astonished that she would actually voice such a sentiment, I recoiled a little, though I loved her. It was one of her least admirable traits, and the most like a stereotypical Jewish mother.
In my family, at least during my grandmother’s lifetime, no one could achieve anything greater than success as an artist. Prospering in business was good, if faintly distasteful, a doctorate was a much-lauded achievement, but we saved our greatest admiration for those with that hidden ore of talent, passing judgments about who had an “eye,” who possessed—or lacked, despite their pretensions to art-making—Juan’s, our standard-bearer’s gifts. Even my great-grandfather Nathan, the entrepreneur/engineer who made the family’s fortune, spent his off-hours and retirement making sculpture. Most of us were hobbyists or connoisseurs, but we believed in the idea of the lone genius, the anointed. The making of art, as well as its appreciation, represented the next step in the evolution of an immigrant family: from shtetl to Central Park West to downtown bohemia, the second generation freed by the hard-scrabbling of the first to acquire the sophisticated accoutrements of true upper middle class gentility.
It’s a rare and wonderful thing to come from a family that loves creative expression as much as ours, but it can also be as demanding and difficult as any that requires members to be top-of-their-class doctors and lawyers. The valuation of art was so high that my mother felt she had to flee her family to escape it, since she, a dancer and potter in her youth, was convinced that she could neither meet the standard nor find sufficient fulfillment in the process to build her life on it. Just recently she had to drop a watercolor class, her first, because the mere thought of trying to make visual art made her so tense and anxious. She just had to give up the idea, she said.
Maybe this history has more than a little to do with why I allowed my literary agent to have so much power over me, why I was so susceptible to her voice. I was ripe for judgment; I was primed to flee.
Fear of failure, my husband said. Sophomore slump. So psychologically simple an explanation that I resisted it, though I see now that it was very likely true. I thought about writing another book, but it made me so tense and anxious, I just had to give up the idea.
All images Copyright © 2015 Anna Cypra Oliver
(This is the fourth post in a series. Find the final post here. sdh)
(Ed note: This is the third in a series by Anna Cypra Oliver. Find yesterday's post here. sdh)
I couldn’t write and so for a long time I turned my creative attention elsewhere: to elaborate cooking and entertaining, freelance editing, the creation with two colleagues of a dramatic reading series, travelling and sketching with Stephan. Then on impulse, prompted by that first effort with the starter kit, I signed Stephan and myself up for an oil painting course at the New School in Manhattan.
After showing us how to arrange our palettes, the instructor, a young working artist named Sonya Sklaroff, set up a canvas in front of a nude model and, as a demonstration, began to paint. First, draw a rough sketch in a single color thinned with turpentine. She made a puddle of watery ultramarine on the palette and quickly roughed in the shape of the reclining woman. If you don’t like the composition, wipe it out with a rag, then start again. She stood back, squinted, rubbed out the legs, repositioned them. Make sure you draw in the shadows at the beginning—shadows are not an afterthought, but an integral part of the object, helping to give it weight and substance—and anything you might want to include in the background. She drew an off-center line behind the model to indicate the corner of the room. After that, lay in all your darks. Work all around the canvas, not just in one corner. We pressed toward her, wanting to be told her secrets, to have the curtain drawn back from the mystery of Art. Save the details for later. Stand back from the canvas, holding your brush at arm’s length, not up-close, with it clutched in your fist. Don’t just fill in a section with paint, as if you were painting a house. I felt a nudge in the ribs by my grandfather. Every brushstroke defines a gesture: if you’re painting the space between the model’s bent elbow and her side, let the movement of your brush over the surface mimic that shape, a kind of off-kilter rectangle. Use the shape of the space around objects to define the objects themselves. For me, she said, that’s what painting is all about—finding beauty in-between things. Now lay in your lights.
Notice, Sonya went on, that each color interacts with the ones next to it, altering your perception of it. A yellow next to a blue creates a shimmer of green. This is why you need to work all around your canvas. I thought of writing, the way I developed paragraphs from the inside, adding and unfolding, cutting and rearranging, or skipped around when I wrote, writing whatever most compelled me, wherever I could find a foothold, constructing the narrative bridges later on or sometimes, not at all. Keep wiping your brush; paint, wipe, paint, wipe. Clean it thoroughly in turpenoid before moving on to the next color, to avoid contaminating one with another. Paint, wipe, paint, wipe. We shifted from foot to foot, growing impatient, eager as kindergarteners to have the brushes in our own hands. Be generous with paint, squeezing large gobs onto your palette so you have plenty to work with. We began to groan inwardly, the students around me giving each other little glances, though Stephan and I, good students both, continued to pay as close attention as we could. She mixed a little cadmium red light, yellow ochre and Naples yellow light, a gorgeous pale butter color, into a skin tone, telling us to avoid white because when it dries it tends to look chalky. How we wanted to be the one’s squeezing out the paint, swirling it around, sloshing it on! Finally, she was done: In twenty minutes she had produced a painting.
This method is called alla prima, which means “at the first,” and refers to a painting that is completed in one session. It’s perfect for the non-classically trained, speed-over-method contemporary artist. Or the intimidated beginner.
I loved it more with each stroke, as did Stephan. The squish and glide of the paint, its smell and texture and gloss and brilliant hue
were an enchantment, simultaneously physical and ethereal. I’d tried watercolor, too, the medium my grandfather favored, but it didn’t move me as this did. So sensual that I wanted to keep spreading it even after the subject was limned, the oil possessed an almost sexual gushiness, as well as a deep sense of thing-ness, as if I held at the end of my brush the material with which to make a world. We huffed and sighed when it came time for the model to take a break, our brush hands drifting toward the canvas even though our subject was out of the room— What are you painting? What are you painting? Sonya would ask. Stop painting. She isn’t there! Three hours passed like nothing. The medium was so variable and so willful that it was more like a living thing than the product of chemicals and ground stones. By the time we left the studio, we were people possessed.
Painting, as a medium, pursues you. You find daubs of paint on your clothes, your handbag, the sleeve of your good coat, the soles of your shoes—a trace you of course discover only after a trail of ultramarine materializes on the polished wood floor of your apartment. Fortunately, it wipes off easily with soap and water when wet, a little mineral spirits when dry. Even oil paint on clothing can usually be scrubbed out with dish soap and elbow grease. But where did it come from? You weren’t even using that blue, not in the last few days at least. No matter. The color hides out, a fugitive leaving tell-tale prints, on the edge of a table, a discarded paper towel, a wedge of plastic used to protect a tabletop or keep a cup of medium from drying out. Worst of all are the outsides of paint tubes. Pick one up, or push one aside searching for another color, and you are bound to be smeared in the process. Or the handles of brushes. Water bottles used to quench the mean thirst that develops while you paint. Canvas tote bags full of painting supplies. The residue is everywhere.
Gripped by the properties of light and color, the forms taking shape on canvas, I worked for so long and with such concentration that I developed headaches, started to wreck things with shaky gestures, had to instruct myself to stop.
Just a daub of flesh-color there. A swipe of viridian to darken that shadow there under the chin.
I spattered paint on the dove white walls of our apartment, on the polished chrome door handles, on the red and orange shag rug in my office (orange paint, fortunately). I splotched my good clothes, as well. I had a denim apron, disposable surgical gloves to keep the paint and turpenoid off my skin, but I didn’t plan to paint when I painted—I was just passing by, on my way to my desk, and saw a patch that needed a daub, a little fix—and so rarely wore any protective covering. An hour later, my hands were streaked with toxic alizarin crimson, poisonous cadmium yellow, cancer-causing (“as determined by the State of California”) titanium white. I’d have a clot of raw sienna in my hair. The mess was everywhere, as were the fumes. The can of turpenoid—mineral spirits—trumpeted the words “natural” and “non-toxic,” but I could tell from the way my eyes and throat burned after a while that there was reason to discount those claims. Heedless, I couldn’t stop for fumes or death.
Painting grabs hold of you in other ways. As I went through my day, I started to see ordinary things in terms of shapes of light and dark, the relation of voids to solids; in my mind, I continually organized the cityscape into compositions on canvas. Walking down Lafayette Street in Manhattan’s Central Village, I came to a sudden halt, stunned by the juxtaposition of a brown brick building and water towers thrust into the gray afternoon sky above a dusky blue mansard roof, both buildings framed below by the black back of a billboard and the pulsing yellow of a Meineke Muffler canopy. I’ve always been drawn to random juxtapositions, disparate elements bumping up against each other, making connections and meanings and causing a little bit of chaos. My book was a collage of images and texts, an assemblage, the Scotch-taped piecing together of the shattered life of my father, a suicide. Standing on the street in front of the mansard roof and Meineke, I felt almost desperate—and definitely self-accusing—that I had neither sketchbook nor camera, much less paint and canvas, in hand, though at this point in my brief career, painting on the street was too embarrassing to consider.
From the outset it was clear that I lacked one of the cardinal virtues of a good painter: patience. Or rather, patience was a virtue that came and went. Sometimes, I could sink completely into the process, work with care and concentration, but at others—all too often—I struggled to proceed methodically, to facilitate the art by doing the technique right. Set-up seemed a tedious chore that took half my morning. I had to force down my own eagerness to jump right in so that I would have fewer hassles while actually trying to work. And if I didn’t approach the process methodically at the outset, a similar lack of rigor would bleed onto the canvas while I was painting. Paint loses its clarity when brushes aren’t adequately cleaned between colors or when smears from an overloaded palette stray from one color to another, yet, ever submissive to the will of urge and impulse, resistant to the equally essential demands of meticulous craft, I’d compulsively jab a still-brown brush into a creamy pale yellow. I’d use tiny dabs of half-dried paint instead of the great squishy gobs my instructor advocated because those gobs were still in the tube somewhere while this old paint, barely pliable, but still moist enough to stain a brush, was right in front of me. All of this was the sure sign of an amateur, as was, I suspect, the inability to stop even after my brush started to chatter in a fatigued hand. Stopping when the juice ran out took a discipline I did not possess. Clean-up afterward was no easier: I’d clean brushes sometimes only when the paint was almost too stiff to remove or leave them standing in a can of mineral spirits for days at a time—an absolute no-no because it weakens the bristles and distorts the shape.
This from the granddaughter of an artist who had a drawer for everything and a painted outline on pegboard for each of his tools, who never let me leave his studio without first putting every one of his cleaned and capped supplies back in its proper place.
I found it difficult, too, to be a handmaiden to paint, waiting hand and foot on its fussy habits. Oil paints are complicated, high-maintenance creatures. They take a long time to dry, which allows them, wonderfully, to be manipulated over a period of time, but they don’t all dry at the same rate, requiring patience and the willingness to let a work evolve at whatever pace the pigment requires: many earth tones dry quickly, in a day or two, cerulean blue and viridian green take up to five, while alizarin crimson and ivory black, among others, take as many as ten days—and even a painting that is dry to the touch shouldn’t be varnished for at least six months, the time it takes for every particle of pigment to harden. Some are opaque (titanium white); some translucent (cobalt blue); some permanent (burnt sienna); some fugitive (alizarin crimson), meaning that they are not light-fast and can fade over time; their tinting strength varies, as does, from manufacturer to manufacturer, their hue, intensity and texture; some colors that would seem a natural mix might instead produce a muddy third color because the chemical composition of the two tints is not compatible. The colors are so sensitive—or so temperamental—that they will even darken if they dry in a dark room, then brighten again if exposed to sunlight, while a few do the reverse: they fade in sunlight but recover, like victims of a migraine, in the dark.
I liked quick results. I also had trouble living with mistakes: if a corner of a painting didn’t work, I wanted to redo it right away, otherwise it would sit there, reproaching me for my lack of talent or ability. Worse yet, someone else might see it.
All images Copyright © 2015 Anna Cypra Oliver
(Find Thursday's post in this series here. sdh)
(Ed note: This is the second in a series by Anna Cypra Oliver. Find yesterday's post here. sdh)
Stephan likes to tell people that he introduced me to drawing, but that isn’t strictly true. I used to draw as a child, in the attic studio of my beloved grandfather Juan, my mother’s father and an accomplished artist, and then in college I took a course in printmaking and one in still life drawing. But the days spent with my grandfather were rare, no more than a week once a year, and the two courses, which I took out of an obscure sense of being ‘artistic,’ a family trait we all proudly traced to Juan, were separated by years. Stephan, on the other hand, made drawing an integral part of my ordinary life. One of his first gifts to me was a sketchbook and a set of pencils.
An architect who received his degree long before the advent of AutoCad and computer modeling, Stephan, who is thirty years older than I, learned to draw as part of his trade; on an early date he swept me into a bookstore that specialized in art and architecture to show me the sketchbooks of Le Corbusier, Lou Kahn, Alvaar Aalto. He himself had notebooks full of travel sketches going back to the 1960s and on our first significant vacation together, a bike trip through Burgundy, we agreed to spend part of every day sketching. We sat together in fields, perched on bicycles, at small round café tables, working with ink or watercolor, capturing town squares and distant stone villages in this slow way, immersed in the landscape, and in the air, light, and weather. This manner of travel, on a bicycle, with a pen and pad, was a revelation: never again would I wish to view a landscape through the compressing on-rush of a car window. I had to fight the desire to produce a picture-postcard, a substitute for the snapshots we were not taking, and I couldn’t, no matter how patiently Stephan explained horizon lines and vanishing points, understand perspective—my church steeples tilted down instead of up, my fence posts often advanced instead of receded—but he assured me that it didn’t matter, the wonkiness of the drawings gave them charm. More than anything, I loved the process, as well as the companionship the two of us shared.
“Loosen the pencil. Let the line flow from your hand. Hold it sideways, balanced on the pad of the thumb and the tips of two fingers, not between your index and middle fingers, as if you’re doing arithmetic. Don’t worry if the lines don’t come out quite right.” Every time I hold a pencil to draw, I hear these instructions in my head, my grandfather speaking to me across three decades from the attic studio in his house in Queens. Now as then, he leans over my shoulder, a warm presence in a suede-elbowed cardigan, his speech soft, still a little foreign despite his fifty-plus years in the United States, and deepened by a slight phlegmy rasp in the back of his throat.
Grandpa Juan was a rarity in my childhood: kind, gentle, never angry that I recall, with a teasing sense of humor, but also sophisticated, urbane, a man with a European manner (South American, actually) who could conjure a voluptuous woman in five strokes on a blank page. In all likelihood, he used fewer words, that being his nature, and showed me the position of the pencil, rather than explaining it. I was never serious enough about art to master the grip, drawing only to pass an afternoon on one of our annual visits—and to be with him in the studio—but even as a child it impressed me that the pencil position, as promised, so transformed the process: it was impossible to draw crabbed, careful lines with the implement held that way. I can still see the paper in front of me, the white sheet angled against a board on one of his upright easels, me on a high stool that swiveled on its metal base. It was a different way of being, a different mode: holding it that way said to the self, We’re making art now. The pencil, almost hidden under the fist of my hand, scattered minute flakes from its creamy point.
I know now what he was after. The lines might wobble at a crucial moment because the grip is less sure, but they are spontaneous and vibrant. The loose hand opens the door to surprise. And when, now, I don’t hold my pencil that way as I draw, when I want the lines as exact as I can make them only by holding it in the old, arithmetic-doing way, I feel as if I have to apologize to my grandfather, or defy him, knowing he is right and my recalcitrance is foolhardy.
(“No surprise in the writer,” Robert Frost famously said, “no surprise in the reader.” I’ve always loved this dictum and tried to follow it in my writing, letting association and word-play lead me where it would, inviting the unexpected into my work by gleefully following a subject or a sentence off on a seeming-tangent. I thought for years that I took the lesson from Frost, but it occurs to me now that it really came from Juan and his pencil.)
My grandfather was not a talker, but to be in his company was a profound pleasure. The awareness of him puttering in the room behind me as I concentrated on loosening my grip gave me a sense of wholeness that I had rarely experienced. He’d peer over my shoulder now and then to see how the work was coming. And sometimes he’d snatch my drawings away to prevent me from scribbling violently on them when I didn’t like how they turned out. He’d pin them in a place of honor on the cluttered corkboard lining one wall.
Even now, I smell the turpentine, oils, the dust-dry drawing paper. My brother loved to be in my grandfather’s basement workshop, among the raw boards and clamps and bits of welding solder. I loved the light through the attic’s Venetian mini-blinds.
The stairs to the attic were painted shiny black, slick underfoot. The lights came on with a dramatic snap of the switch. On tables against the large window, all my grandfather’s brushes—big glossy pompoms and sable tips as fine as eyelashes—were clumped in jars. Rulers and triangles of all sizes hung on peg board, little drawers revealed tubes of watercolor and acrylics and oils, color upon color. His paintings and drawings were stacked everywhere.
For years, I might have barely a conscious thought about my grandfather, who died in 1985, when I was sixteen, and then I pick up a pencil and he is instantly there at my elbow, leaning over my shoulder, his voice, raspy but comforting as the white stubble that turned his cheek to sandpaper, saying, Don’t hold it that way! Let it flow from the hand. Don’t worry if the lines don’t come out exactly right.
Work leads to work, of course, idea to other ideas. The important thing is to keep the words flowing. That was the fatal error in my literary agent’s thinking—the outlook of a businesswoman (even if her business was books) rather than an artist. The essays that she considered a waste of time would have led me to the next book. I’m sure of that now. Instead, I followed her hectoring voice down the garden path to a brick wall.
Not that I didn’t try to write. I told everyone, in defiance of the shrill bird on my shoulder, that I was working on a new book based on the lives of my maternal grandparents, Juan and Rose, but the truth was, I jumped up, thinking of other things to do, more often than I sat down to work. Then I thought of a starter set of oil paints in my closet, a set I’d bought years before but had never actually opened. Unable to gain any momentum with the story, it occurred to me that the physical act of trying to paint my grandparents might help me to explore them emotionally as characters. My grandfather, after all, was an artist, and she, my grandmother, frequently, his model.
Working from a black and white photograph taken in the 1930s, I sketched my grandmother Rose in pencil onto canvas, and then with the tip of my round brush swirled red, yellow and white together, guessing at the combination that might produce a reasonable flesh tone. Approximating from memory and other, color photographs, I painted in her brown hair, shading it toward tan where the light struck at the crown, applied small patches of pale ochre and peach to capture the variable play of light across her forehead, shadowed the three-leaf clover of her round nose with purplish gray, then swept longer strokes into my penciled outline, trying to replicate the firm full line of her heart-shaped cheeks. Impatience made me keep daubing pinkish white on her face to lighten a too-dark skin tone, but after a while the paint, as if taunting me, refused to respond: it absorbed whatever I piled on without seeming to change color at all. I had to force myself to wait for it to dry before I could try again.
The finished picture was more than a little cartoonish and flat, the tilt of the head was not quite right, the figure didn’t fill the canvas as it should, but it looked something like her. I had managed, almost, to capture the folds in her blouse, and the shadows that melded her body to the chair in which she sat. I was struck by her expression in the photograph; even staring off into the middle distance, she looked fierce rather than dreamy. She was a woman who could not or would not dissemble her obvious smarts. Though muted by the dewy starlet set-up so typical of portraits of that era, or maybe by her youth, her intensity was apparent, too, the thoughtful demeanor of an opinionated woman. She was quick to argue, slow to back down, demanding and analytical, but sensual too, with a dancer’s uninhibited sense of her own body and a wild-side attraction to bohemia. Painting her, I thought also of Juan, who drew her often, capturing her naked or clothed, reading a book on the couch, making dinner, smoking a cigarette, her eyes always darkly intelligent, her look always intent. The drawings and paintings proved how beautiful she must have been to him, always—she with whom he, by her own admission, had little more in common than a love of art and a sexual attraction so fierce that the current continued to run between them, as swift and treacherous as spring flood, fifty years after they met, when they were two elderly people sleeping side-by-side in separate twin beds.
I never noticed before painting them how full her lips were or how flawless her skin.
All images Copyright © 1999 Estate of Juan and Rose Oliver
(Ed note: This is the second in a series. Find Wednesday's post here. sdh)
I don’t know how else to say this: The Internet is lying to you.
Or to be more specific: The first Google search page is not the holy grail of accurate information.
This week, the United States Postal Service unveiled a limited-edition stamp featuring Maya Angelou’s visage and a really lovely line of poetry that she did not write. An intrepid reporter from the Washington Post, with the remarkable insight to go to beyond quotable.com as a resource, discovered that the stamp used a line actually written by Joan Walsh Anglund.
What I take from this is that Maya Angelou and I are basically the same person. I kid, I kid, I’m blogging from Midway Airport on a two-hour delay on my way to AWP. But really, we have at least this in common.
In the mid-2000s, I was writing a series of poems in the voices of martyrs, speaking to people alive today -- mostly Catholic saints speaking to celebrities. I believed that the series had roughly run its course when a life-changing breakup happened and I found myself reaching for some structure through which to write about the experience that wasn’t the inconsolable free-form ramblings of a sobbing woman on the subway.
I’d always read the stories of saints and their kind as cautionary tales, rather than injunctions to live the kind of life the martyr had. I’d also long held a fascination with Frida Kahlo, as a strong, loud, queer female artist in a long-term and at least intermittently dysfunctional hetero relationship with a genius-level fellow artist.
I was, however, even in my fascination, determined not to lead her life. So when the relationship ended, I found myself compelled to write one last poem in the martyr series: Frida Kahlo to Marty McConnell.
The poem became a staple of my readings, and was published in Salt Hill Review in 2009. Eventually it fell out of rotation as new break-ups and new break-up poems blossomed. I figured that was the end of it and tucked it away with the other martyr poems, all destined not even to make it into a full book manuscript.
Then a funny thing happened in Internetlandia.
Ever since I learned what a Google alert was, I’ve had one set for myself. Generally what pops up are re-postings of video footage or poems published online, the occasional mention on a blog, and people using the name “Marty” in the same sentence as a rant against Senator Mitch McConnell (no relation). People really really hate Senator Mitch McConnell.
I started to get a lot of alerts letting me know that people were reblogging the poem, especially on Tumblr, which as you may know is a social media site that is, for some reason, wildly popular with perennially heartbroken adolescent girls and people who write fanfic (look it up.)
So that was great! Lots of people were reading the poem and it was making them happy, or at least less sad. And I was building a solid fan base of people not old enough to get into any of the bars where I performed.
Fast forward to mid 2012. By now, I’m accustomed to getting an alert every month or so about some new re-posting, and Google for whatever reason isn’t even alerting me to all the Tumblr re-posts. No big deal. The poem is out there doing its poem work, all is well.
Or, all seemed well. Somewhere along the way, in the mysterious labyrinth of the Tumblrverse, my name fell off.
At first it remained attached in the title, although increasingly the line breaks were disappearing or the poem was horrifyingly centered in a fancy embellished font (shudder.) Then Instagram and Pinterest strolled onto the social media scene, and someone wrote one line of the poem (“take a lover who looks at you like maybe you are magic”) on a post-it note, attributed it to Frida Kahlo, took a picture of it and therein we witness the birth of a brand new quote by a woman dead for nearly 60 years.
Small internet-based battles I have waged based on this include a heated email exchange with a woman selling a wall-size metal cut-out of the quote on Etsy, several struggles with makers of greeting cards and calligraphic paraphenalia, and a Twitter-based protest against a California-based apparel company selling t-shirts with Frida’s photo and the quote alongside their charming selection of apparel sporting close-ups of various portions of the female anatomy.
Out of concern for my own sanity and recognizing that I must have better things to do, I’ve stopped correcting the Instagrams and Pinterests that slather the line across pictures of ostensible lovers floating underwater, rocketing pink stars, Frida herself, and my personal favorite: Disney’s Jasmine and Aladdin. Oh, and the ones that translate it into Spanish.
A recent list of “Frida Kahlo Quotes You Need To Read Today” included not only the line excerpted, but the poem in its entirety, and somehow, astonishingly, the line “take a lover who looks at you like maybe you are a bourbon biscuit.”
A Google search for “Frida Kahlo to Marty McConnell” produces about 19,000 results. A search for “Marty McConnell” produces about 18,000. A Google search for “Frida Kahlo quotes – take a lover” produces about 153,000 hits.
If there’s a moral to the story, it’s probably best expressed in the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln, preferably juxtaposed with a wise-looking and iconic photograph of him in top hat and jacket: Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.