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.
It is Saturday July 28, 1990 at the now defunct Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center on West 96th Street in New York City. I am at a middle school children's writing workshop. Improbably, I am the teacher. The night before the workshop I cloister myself in the bathroom. Nervous stomach. Clammy hands. Head spinning. A writing teacher? Me?
Earlier that year I taught a few tap dance classes to children as a substitute at the Hot Feet studios in the nation's capitol. I also taught buffon clowning at a weekend workshop for children at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre. But teaching writing? How do I do that? Oh, I knew it could be done. I was molded by superb reading, writing, and performing educators. One such mentor was Samuel H. Wilson, Jr., a founder of the Arena Players, the oldest, continuously operating African American community theatre in the United States of America. Mr. Wilson recommended that I replace him for the Saturday children's writing workshop in 1990. Fred Hudson, the artistic director of the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center, readily agreed.
I had known both men since I was a child entertainer. Mr. Wilson and I had also led anti-gang violence workshops at public schools in the Mid-Atlantic states throughout the 1980s using techniques from Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed. Mr. Wilson was a giant in my world because he genuinely cared about my welfare. "What are you working on?" he always asked, and whatever I told him, he was invariably encouraging. In 1990, Mr. Wilson was occasionally sick. He would have only five more years to live before dying of pneumonia in 1995. It is now 2015: twenty years since his death and I still miss him deeply.
That Friday in July of 1990 before my first workshop the next day as a writing teacher, I call Mr. Wilson on the telephone for help. He asks me to think back to what he told me about writing many years before when I was a child. "Writing," Mr. Wilson always told me, "is just another way of caring about other people." He also said that, "Editing is just another way of caring about writing" and "Reading is just another way of changing the world." Then Mr. Wilson told me that if any of these things are true, then teaching is just another way of sharing this good news. At the core of his reflections was a vision of writing as relationship-building, as affection, and as care.
Over the phone Mr. Wilson suggests that I get the children talking to each other, sharing their own stories, and looking into each others' eyes. "It's not always page-bound," he says to me. "Don't be afraid to use your theatre technique to teach writing," Mr. Wilson bellows into the phone. That Saturday, after we warm-up by running around the room and vocalizing, the children and I create characters based on the real life denizens that occupy our neighborhoods. Then we fashion scenes in which the characters work through conflicts. We move in and out of writing, talking, and performing. And I am pretty sure that I learn far more than anyone else in the room.
For all of my life, Mr. Wilson's reflections about writing, editing, and reading have lit my way through the sometimes dark world of literary fortune. Even today I often begin and end my writing classes with his reflections. His ideas have taught me to be a generous writer, reader, and supporter of others. I see beyond the frequent provincialism of cliques, schools, clubs, and canons. I try to find a way to care about a diversity of writing around me. Rather than focusing on how the writing fits my own predilections, or the fame of the author, or the assumed cachet of the publishing venue, or the friends associated with the author, or even whether the work is narrowly "good" or "bad"--rather than focusing on any of these things, I try to care about the work by understanding the structural principles that seem to govern its design.
Let me close today's entry with just such an exercise of care about a recent poem published by Mary Meriam in the Winter issue of American Arts Quarterly. "It Gets Very Dark until the Moon Rises" is more than a Petrarchan sonnet. It is a poem that seethes forth from the central verb statement in its first line: "darkness drives her pick-up truck." Everything thereafter in the poem structures itself around this remarkable conceit. And then we (the reader) are off on the journey of this hard-living, smart, unlucky woman through the dark of Highway 86 until the turn in the poem when the moon shows the woman's face, and I'll leave the rest, dear reader, to you.
KMD: I've truly enjoyed reading all three of your books, and was intrigued by the dream-like quality of the poems in Arco Iris. They seem at once ethereal and carefully grounded in concrete imagery, rendering everyday things (like coffee, used electronics, and the sky above) suddenly and wonderfully strange. Along these lines, many of the poems take place in an unnamed tropical location, which for the reader, is both anywhere and nowhere, a tangible place place and a psychological one. With that in mind, I'd love to hear your thoughts about the relationship between travel, the literary arts, and the human psyche. What does travel make possible within your writing practice? And within conscious experience?
SV: That's interesting. I don't think of Arco Iris as dreamlike or unspecific. It's actually named a few times as South America-- many regions in South America-- a continent my partner and I traveled for a few months about nine years ago. The book is, in my experience of it and my intentions for it, a kind of anti travel-poetry. Or a rejection of the trope of travel (especially of the white traveler going to a brown place to have a "writing experience" or to buy themselves an authentic transformational experience or etc.). It is a book in which I can't write or think myself out of a scenario in which my movement in the world (as a white American, especially) is not complicit with neoliberal violence and/or globalism and its many layers and types and shades of (economic, racial, political, physical...) violences. I wonder if the ethereal experience you had of it was what I felt to be the spellcasting of capitalism--you try to say something against capitalism, it is immediately appropriated as a product of capitalism (and neutralized?), ad infinitum.
But along those lines, after having read your Music for another life and Vow-- I'd love to ask--what do the ethereal, the dreamlike, the bride, and the book mean for you in those collections? And perhaps related, do you understand or do you think through your work on a book-by-book level, or a poem-by-poem level, or as a group of books together, or...?
KMD: That's a great question. I've always thought of reading as a kind of travel, in which one is carried from consciousness as we know it into a kind of dream state. For me, the physical object of the book facilitates this transformation, this dreaming as much as the work itself.
As much as I hate to admit it, it all begins (for me at least) with the book's cover, as well as its size, texture, the way it feels in the hand. It is for this reason that I love to be very involved in the design of my books. When Max Avi Kaplan and I co-wrote Music for another life, we actually typeset the entire book, designed the cover, and selected the cover image from within the collaboration, presenting it to the publisher as a finished, fully-realized product.
My approach to the book as a physical object emerges, in a lot of ways, from my approach to poetry manuscripts. For me, each manuscript is really one long poem, an entire world unto itself. With both Vow and Music for another life, the book as object was merely an extension of the project, the world I had envisioned within the text itself. I think that we tend to overlook the many ways that poetry is physical, that writing and even publishing are embodied acts.
With that in mind, I'd love to hear more about your process, since your books always read as fully realized, cohesive worlds, the kind I strive for (and at times fall short of creating) in my own work. I'm intrigued by the relationship between the individual poem and the larger manuscript. How do you negotiate the poem and the project, the larger vision? Is it possible to have one without the other? Lastly, how does a given project or manuscript begin for you?
SV: When I was first writing things for the world to see (by which I mean: in my MFA program), I thought on a poem by poem, or even line by line, or word by word level. At this point I think I might feel how you do-- that my books are equivalents of long poems, or, more to the point, are a single word-centered project versus a "collection of poems." I think the word "poetry" is the best thing to call what I am writing these days maybe only because it's not anything else. (Not a story, not an essay, not an article, not straight scholarship, not journalism, not....). I admire that poetry can hold so much, is being asked to hold so much, and that it seems to be easy for it. I am extremely interested in what is often called hybrid or conceptual within the outstandingly elastic abilities of poetry-- these efforts that pose a challenge to the other categories of writing (scholarship, journalism, coding, etc.), asking them to also expand their abilities and considerations and concerns and ways. To democratize, as I believe you said in another interview.
I'd love to hear you speak more about the democratization of writing (scholarly writing about writing), if you're so inclined. I'm also like to know how the instinct to democratize enters your work/career/etc. (Mirzoeff's phrase: "democratizing democracy" is something I've thought a lot about.)
KMD: I love this question. Most of my poems are a (very small) effort to make academic forms of writing more inclusive. Scholarship in the most traditional sense is frequently predicated on acts of exclusion, since most of us can name many things that don't fit within an academic essay: personal experience, aestheticized language, an interrogation of received forms of discourse, experimentation, and the list goes on. In my opinion, many of these things that are excluded from academic writing appear much more often in contemporary women's writing. It is most commonly women's writing that is othered, excluded as non-academic, even irrational. I'm deeply invested in creating a way of using academic forms that is not hostile to women, but rather, allows lived experience, poetic language, and experimentation to compliment and complicate what we think of as rational discourse. In my new book, Fortress, especially, I drew from academic texts like Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain, and presented much of the work in footnotes, but my own experience proved central to the discussions of empathy in the book. I think that academic writing is often very personal, whether we like to admit it or not. For me, it's more productive to acknowledge and deal with the ways that different categories of writing, different types of language blur together, rather than trying to maintain a false semblance of clear boundaries.
This interest in democratizing academic writing has shaped most of my career choices, as you suggest in your very perceptive question. I'm active in the small press as a volunteer editor, and have a small press, Noctuary Press. With Noctuary, I try to carve a space for texts that don't fit within the traditional modes of dissemenation, distribution, or even established submission categories. I hope that by publishing uncategorizable texts, I'm playing a small part in expanding what is possible within our thinking about what a text, publisher, or book object can be.
I think that my interest in democratizing academic writing is one of the many reasons I'm so drawn to The End of the Sentimental Journey. It's also beautifully crafted, witty, lively, and engaging. I teach the book in my poetry workshop and my students find it wonderfully refreshing. They often express their surprise that critical writing can be as much fun as poetry, as beautifully written, and as innovative in style. To what extent did you see this creative approach to literary scholarship as a feminist act? How does gender shape the ways that we inhabit academic forms of writing? Is academic writing (and the interrogation of academic forms) linked to larger issues of social justice for you as writer?
SV: I think dismantling anything at all, these days, is my first instinct toward social justice or feminism. I'm also interested in the building--but, cyclical nature of my brain etc.--I've been in dismantle mode for a long time and therefore the dismantling of categories of thought, of writing, of understanding, of power--that is all I seem to want to do. Academic writing is ripe, ripe for implosion and expansion. There is no reason why it shouldn't do more than it does, and do it in more kinds of ways, and there is every reason why it should. Academia, if it is to remain relevant, simply put: needs greater inclusion of women, people of color, queer people, people from different socioeconomic experiences, and people from more parts of the world. This is a longish way of saying that to stay relevant academia needs also to be/think less white, less rich, less male, less heteronormative. Obviously, obviously: what is "academic," what is considered worthy of our study, should be vast and dangerous and offensive, and the language we use to speak about it should not be tamed, not be simply rule-following, and not be simply traditional. If academia can't accommodate this kind of inquiry then it's no longer relevant--just wealthy and self-congratulatory. (Thus, yes, End of the Sentimental Journey-- and everything else I'm reading and working on these days.) This is part of what is interesting to me about the recent wave of creative writing PhD programs-- I have a lot of faith in creative writers' potentials to contaminate academia.
That said, I think journalism and investigative reporting and history, or what we've been calling journalism and investigative reporting and history for a while, are also areas that feel like ours for the taking. Call it documentary, call it political, call it hybrid, call it researched, call it academic-- I've been reading almost exclusively poetry that is engaged with social justice issues of there here and now, and social justice issues as they have resonated historically. And by social justice issues I mean race. I mean gender. I mean capitalism. I mean war machines. I mean oceans dying. I am reading everything I can find in this vein (and there is a lot). Personally, I think these are exciting dismantlings and exciting times for writing (but really bad times for most other things). I can't wait to get old and see all the crazy-good shit this next generation is going to do, but also I don't want to rush it because probably the world is going to end in environmental disaster.
Speaking of which: what crazy-good shit are you working on right now?
KMD: Speaking of feminism, expansion, and social justice... I'm working on a feminist response to/erasure of/reframing of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. The book is a collaboration with visual artist, photographer, and costumer Max Avi Kaplan. The fragmented, elliptical poems in the manuscript recast the narrative from Lo's perspective. As we worked on the book, Max and I also became very interested in themes of disembodiment within Lolita. More often than not, the reader is given only tiny fragments of Lolita, never the full person. We are presented with "a honey colored limb," "knobby knees," a pair of sunglasses. Max's magnificent photographs present their female subject in small fragments, frequently showing her hands trying to escape from rooms, unlocking doors, or dialing a rotary phone. We wanted to call attention to the way Lolita is frequently disembodied, fragmented within the book, but also to empower Lolita, giving voice to a character who is frequently spoken for (in much the same way as Petrarch's Laura). The book, In love with the ghost, is forthcoming from Negative Capability Press in 2015. I hope you'll check it out.
And I'd love to hear about your current projects as well. What can readers look forward to?
SV: I'm working on a few things-- the final revisions of Viability, coming out in 2015 with Penguin; and I've been working on something I imagine will take me years to finish that takes as its center, well, I guess I'm not sure how to talk about it yet-- it's in that long, silently-loud part of becoming something. I'm neck-deep in a few things, I guess. And reading and reading and reading. Researching fetus images in literature and visual art-- so if you know of any....
Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) was in his late teens when he painted the masterpiece, “An Old Woman Cooking Eggs,” now on view at the Frick Collection, together with other paintings on loan from the Scottish National Gallery. Art lovers and culinary historians can benefit from multiple viewings of this stunning achievement.
The painting depicts an old woman doing precisely what the title claims while a young boy stands by holding a flask in his left hand and cradling a rope-wrapped melon in the crook of his right arm. It is an example of the bodegón, paintings of humble kitchen and tavern life, at which Velázquez and his contemporaries excelled during the Spanish Golden Age.
There’s a new Language Movement in town.
I remember when Charles and Bruce began publishing L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, how their writing made me think of language in a new way. Whether I’m in Australia, or on a reservation in South Dakota, when people say they are talking “in Language,” what I know is that they’re talking in their Mother Tongue. To these folks, English is not Language, English is the way you get along. Language is who you are, words that have been passed down through generations.
“Language Matters” is the first nationwide media recognition of the Language Crisis, which is not just about languages, but cultural diversity. It’s about global homogenization, the Pringleization of society, about cultures being steamrollered under globalization. The growing call to action for language preservation is a drive to see the cultures of the world through a lens of understanding and respect, of seeing the world through a cultural lens, not just a political one. The problem is that in this era of the consciousness of literacy, in this world of hard science, endangered languages and cultures are disadvantaged; if you don’t have the quantification, the metrics, you don’t really have something to say. Quantifying languages is complex (I’d like to say impossible, but I can’t). This is where the poets come in.
Four years ago, when we started “Language Matters,” people were saying there were 7,000 languages in the world. Now there are 6,000, not because we’ve lost that many languages, but because now that these numbers are really starting to count for something on the political table, linguists are beginning to hedge. It’s hard to know exactly how many languages there are, and harder to enumerate speakers. It’s not like counting the number of pandas. In the prologue to the motion poem “Khonsay,” where each line from a different endangered/minority language, we split the difference, say there are 6,500. And the reason I used the “endangered/minority” construct is because linguists also disagree on the at-risk level of many many languages.
When I was in Wales asking people if they spoke Welsh, there were people with a junior high level of vocabulary who were quite proud that they could speak Welsh. Others, who were absolutely fluent, said they couldn’t really speak it. They were hanging out with people who were born into the language, who knew more slang.
The only thing everyone agrees with is that huge numbers of languages, languages that have been around, usually, for millennia, are dying out right now.
When I tell people we’re losing half the languages on the planet by the end of this century, unless we do something about it, they never ask “how many languages is that, exactly?” Instead, their reactions are always “yes, let’s do something about it.” And again, this is why I think that participating in the Language Movement, helping to protect all languages, is part of the job of the poet in 2015. It’s a movement to protect the diversity of languages in the world. A movement to give respect to all languages. A movement to appreciate that each language has its own poetry, and is an important part of an Ecology of Consciousness.
Digital Consciousness connects us all. But are we listening to each other? Are we respecting each other’s traditions? It’s great to have “Language Matters” find its way out into the world, four years after David Grubin and I had that lunch. When I was working on “The United States of Poetry” with Mark Pellington and Joshua Blum, Josh, who gave me a dictum about TV that I’ll never forget. “The first rule of making a television program, is to get it on television.” The national broadcast of “Language Matters on PBS is the end of that quest, of that story.
Which means it’s the beginning of the journey. Now that people have seen the show, what about the call to activism inherent in it? So I ask all you poets out there to live like Natalie Diaz, and help your own Language find its way into the world. And if that Language happens to be English, well then you don’t understand the part about what Language is. Help me get this program into places where languages are struggling to survive and a screening of the film will give cred to the work. Find languages around you and learn from them. Take seriously the role of the poet as a protector of language, not just a user.
There’s nothing like writing a poem, to take words, each one with its own history, multiple meanings, and build a sculpture of meaning. It’s a gift, the words that come to us. People have sparked these sounds, people have laid down their lives for their continuation—language is the essence of humanity, and poetry is the essence of language.
Working with linguists has allowed me to see language from the other side. The collaboration of science and art is good for everybody. If you never could understand the people who come up to you and say they can’t understand poetry, I recommend your going to a linguistics conference and try to understand what those people are talking about!
But to me that’s what the future holds. Sit through a lecture in a language you don’t understand, listen to the poetry of a language you’re trying to learn, place yourself in a situation where English is useless, learn what Language really is. This is the clarion call of our time. This is why Language Matters.
Put earbud in west ear
Put other earbud in east ear
Clapsticks, didj, now your voice
Recorded yesterday, Mt Borredale,
In Amardak, you’re the Last Speaker
Hear? Your voice doesn’t sound so good
You sang good, but the recording was no good
Could you sing now, Charlie, please?
Charlie nods. Charlie listens
Clapsticks, didj, now your voice, please - Now
Now Charlie listens
OK Charlie, we need you to sing Now
Charlie nods and listens
Now Charlie listens
Cue Charlie – listens
Jamesy tells Charlie
Get headphone splitter
Jamesy puts on headphones
Charlie and Jamesy listen
Clapsticks, didj. Charlie’s voice
Jamesy sings a little
Jamesy looks at Charlie
Charlie looks at Jamesy
OK? Charlie listens
OK, Jamesy now speak Iwaidja with Charlie
OK, Charlie listens, Charlie nods
OK Jamesy looks at Charlie
OK clapsticks in fingers
OK Charlie listens, didj
OK now. Now Charlie sings
Asking Charlie Mangulda, the Last Speaker of Amurdak, to overdub his performance from the sacred site of Mt. Borradale, was one of the most complex and unnerving directorial moves—to me, not to him—I’ve ever had to do. John Tranter, our local sound guy, is just a dynamite practitioner. But recording Charlie’s voice, two, cracking clapstick players, and a bulbous didgeridoo on a cave’s platform under an ancient painting of a Rainbow Serpent, proved to be too much for our top-of-the-line digital equipment. This poem tells the story. I won’t repeat it. I won’t even tell you what Ma barang! means, I’m sure you already know. And if you don’t know, then you really do already know.
What I do want to talk about, briefly, is the opening lines. In Amurdak, Charlie’s language, is one of the very few instances where you can actually see a difference in consciousnesses between languages. The idea that some languages are more primitive than others is simply cultural prejudice: you can say anything in any language, and every language has a full syntax and grammatology. But in Amurdak, Charlie doesn’t know his left from his right. This concept, which until the 1960s was thought to be universal, actually doesn’t exist in a few languages. The way Charlie designates direction is simply and solely through cardinal directions. And it’s been shown that it doesn’t matter where speakers of these languages are placed, they are automatically oriented to the compass points, so that they can say of the choices, “I’ll take the one on the southwest.”
Now, you could infer from this that Amurdak people don’t see themselves, each one, as the center of the universe, where left and right is always and only consistent to the person speaking. Instead, the Amurdak people—or in this case, Charlie, the Last Speaker—is simply a point standing somewhere on Earth. But that’s just an inference. Or maybe a poem.
One more thing before we close. When Charlie was translating the creation myth of Warramurrungunji, he listed the dozen or so languages that the Goddess dropped, thus bringing humans to the place she had created. Somehow, under the disturbing lights of the camera, with the intrusion of the microphone, Charlie remembered three words of a language that linguist Nick Evans, an expert on cultures of Northern Australia, didn’t know he could speak. And when Charlie mentioned Wurdirrk and gave Nick some words, it was the first time that this language has ever been recorded. That’s correct. I think this was The Apotheosis of the whole shoot of “Language Matters.” I could see the headline in the Times: Documentary Crew Discovers Lost Language.
The words Charlie spoke translate to: “I want to listen to you,” “yam-digging tool,” and “give me fire.” The first thing that was apparent to Nick from these three words is that they are unlike any other language, which means Wurdirrk is not a dialect—without these words, we never would have known that.
As a poet, I’d like to say one more thing about the words. If you triangulate from them, what you have is a whole culture. “I want to listen to you,” the essence of the community. “Yam-digging tool,” the basis of the community’s relationship with the earth and it also means “digging deeply into the meaning of something.” And “give me fire,” the essence of light, of heat, a great song title, and the best joke in the book.
For “gimme fire,” I envisioned Charlie as a little boy, these strange people coming out of the darkness late at night, shivering and cold, needing some of this precious fire for light and heat. Later, Charlie would give me the deeper meaning of this idiom. Hey buddy, you got a match?
“Foneddigion a Boneddigesau! Fy llinell gyntaf o gynghanedd!” The Welsh is slow and halting, pried off the page, the performance knowing and with flair. If I do say so myself.
I am saying it myself.
It’s me. On stage. Stomp, 2012, Vale of Glamorgan, Cymru (Welsh for “Wales”).
The Stomp (Y Stomp, in Welsh), is the National Poetry Slam of Wales. It is part of the annual Eisteddfod, the national cultural festival of all things Welsh. As I say in “Language Matters,” “It’s a lot like the state fairs in the US, except that instead of prizes for pies or pigs, the prizes are for poetry.”
The first Eisteddfod was in 1176, when Lord Rhys invited poets and musicians from all over the country to compete for a seat at his table. You could sing for your supper, and then get fed. Winning was an entree into the house of the Lords, and a golden meal ticket for the winning poet. The chair you pulled up to the table was a special Bard’s Chair, and to this day, the prize for the winning poet in the Formal Category is a Chair. Hand-carved by an artisan, the winner gets to take the Chair home, sit in it, and write more poems. In Welsh.
For me, as usual, the whole thing started at the Bowery Poetry Club, when we hosted readings by Welsh poets as part of the Peoples Poetry Gatherings, 2002-03. That’s where I began to feel the intensity around this ancient Celtic language. Whenever I bring up Welsh in New York, the response is invariably, “Well, what about Irish?” While the Irish fought and gained political independence, they did so in English. The Irish language is now much more endangered than Welsh. The Welsh never fought for independence, but rather cultural parity, and today Welsh is considered the only endangered language to have come off the endangered language list. It’s a success story by any metric, which is why it got its place in “Language Matters.”
One of the poets I met at the Club is Grahame Davies, who writes in both Welsh and English, and whose work and being was crucial in my decision to study Welsh. Grahame lives the fire and rigor needed to keep this ancient language alive. The fire is contagious, and to prepare for the film, I flew to Wales and began my own formal and informal study of the language.
Grahame picked me up at the Caerdydd (Cardiff) Airport, and we headed for breakfast with Elinor Robson of the Welsh Language Society. I confessed my dream to them, and we all laughed over a full Welsh. What? I, who didn’t even know enough to fly to Manchion (Manchester) to get to Gog Gymru (North Wales), who couldn’t say Blaenau Ffestiniog (the slate-mining town where I live in Wales), let alone spell it, who hadn’t even met Dewi Prysor! was proposing that I participate in next year’s Stomp! I, who didn’t know from “hwyl” (aloha), was going to write and perform a poem in Welsh -- all for this documentary I was making for PBS.
And as you now can see on the front page of the live-stream at PBS.org, the fantasy came real, all duded up in lucky Tibetan cap and Mexican guayabera, taking on all comers at Stomp 2012. “Ladies and Gentlemen! My first line of cynghanedd!” I am saying, to translate the first words of this post. And it really was the first cynghanedd I ever wrote.
In the film, the line is followed by a raucous audience response, Stomp cards held high—unlike the U.S. Slam, at the Stomp the audience is the judge, and they judge by holding up different colored cards to indicate their favorite poet. Watch as I collect a brotherly hug from Dewi, my mentor, friend and Stomp opponent, also an award-winning novelist and Stomp-winning poet, whose current job is translating episodes of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” into Welsh.
The cynghanedd is what separates formal Welsh poetry from free verse; in fact, it is what separates Welsh poetry from any other poetry in the world. There are six different forms of cynghanedd, and to win the Chair, you must write a poem that includes sections written in each. Each form has its own rules, here’s a general description the poetic device Marerid Hopwood, in her handbook Singing in Chains: Listening to Welsh Verse, describes as “consonant chime :” to create a cynghanedd , a line is divided into three sections, a double caesura. The middle section is thrown out. The two sections left, must have all their consonants (except the last) match up. In other words, the vowels, and of course in Welsh, Y and W are always vowels, are immaterial. The sounds we use to make rhymes don’t count.
Now from here things get a little complex. Sometimes there is internal rhyme, sometimes rhyme line-to-line, sometimes both—but let’s just leave it at that. The extraordinary thing is that a Welsh audience can hear the cynghanedd, applauding an especially good one, and be quite aware of a poet trying to slide something by. As an American poet writing in Welsh, even in the Stomp, to come up with a cynghanedd was quite a feat.
(Hopwood’s title is of course a line from “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas. The irony is that while we think of Thomas as the Welsh poet, in Wales he’s often not even considered to be in the top tier. Why? Because he didn’t write in Welsh. In fact, many people think that a lot of Thomas’s power comes from his having heard and digested the sounds and rhythms of Welsh poetry as a youth, and then using these Welsh cynghanedd forms in English. For your further elucidation, another poet who used Welsh forms and sounds was that old Jesuit and inventor of sprung rhythm, Gerard Manley Hopkins)
Quick cut back to breakfast—Grahame and Elinor waving goodbye, I’m training/bussing it to Nant Gwrtheyrn, the Welsh Cultural Center, where I will begin my formal study of Welsh. Flashback to Stanza Poetry Festival in St. Andrews, Scotland, six months before, where another Welsh poet, Sian Melangell Dafydd, replies to my comment that I want to learn Welsh by saying “there’s this magical place in Llyn…” Flash forward to Grahame Davies’ brillant Everything Must Change, a novel that is a mash-up of the Welsh language protests of the 60s with the bio of Simone Weill. Flash further forward to my two weeks’ immersion at Nant where my Welsh teacher Llinos Griffin is prodding the Cymraeg (Welsh language) out of me, saying “You, know, you really should meet Dewi Prysor…”
…And what was your first line of cynghanedd, Bob? you’ve probably been wondering. “Yn ysgwd yn fy esgyrn.” Which, as you can see in “Language Matters,” I learn how to pronounce as I drive our van (my full title: host/driver) through scenic Wales, and which the show’s storyteller/line producer, Sian Taifi, also tries to instill in me by having me sing the words.
Besides Sian, Dewi and Grahame, the film also shows me learning with David Crystal, Europe’s most famous linguist, and Ivor ap Glyn, poet and TV host/producer. The line translates, “I am shaking my bones,” and as you can tell by my rendering, I really was.
The Stomp is a variant of the US Poety Slams, and I’ve done enough Slams to know that grabbing attention at the top is crucial. So I asked Dewi to teach me something that would bust through in case anyone at the Stomp should heckle my mispronunciation or lack of mutations, (Mutations! The bete noir of the Welsh language. Did you notice back a-ways how cynghanedd mutated to gynghanedd? Not a typo! In English and French we often elide one word into another by dropping the last letter: singing to singin’, eg. In Welsh, you “mutate” the first letter of the incoming word, so that, for example, if you are going to Bangor, you would say im Mangor, the B of Bangor mutating to an M. Which of course makes driving in Wales even more fun.) So the title I came up with for my Stomp masterpiece is: Ffwciwch Oma! Dwin Ffwcin Dysgwr Ffwcin Gymraeg! which, lovingly translates to “Fuck Off! I’m a Fuckin’ Welsh Fuckin’ Learner!”
Not only would I be trying to turn my lack of Welsh into an advantage by begging for the sympathy vote, but I’d also be paying homage to the colorful language the Stomp is known for, especially as used so expressively by my mate Prysor and the training camp he established in Blaenau (The Queen), with occasional side trips to Llan (Y Pengwyrn) and Tanygrisiau (Y Tap) -- three major pubs in three parts of town. It’s also worth noting that there are no indigenous curse words in Welsh; like Ffwcin, they’re all borrowings from bully English.
Playing between orality and literacy is one of my favorite areas of poetic exploration. In fact, it was how I got involved with Endangered Languages in the first place. Of the 6000 languages in the world (I just love saying that!), only 700 are written down. The Welsh oral traditions, from the Celitc storytellers and Druid poemmakers all he way to today’s Stomp, has been crucial to the language’s survival. And it was through my investigations into the roots of hiphop poetry (hiphop IS poetry!), that I first came across the Language Crisis.
Having established myself as an appropriately iconoclastic bardd Cymreig in the poem’s title, I felt it was important that the first line of the poem reverse field and show my respect for Welsh culture: “Rwy'n teimlo fel y ddraig goch yng nghanol y frwydr,” imparts to me a mythic status, as I identify with the deepest image of Welsh mythology: “I feel like the Red Dragon entering into battle.” You may have noticed that Wales is the only country with a Red Dragon on its flag: the symbol of Wales, sleeping underground next to the White Dragon (England), waiting only for the Apocalypse to disinter, and then emerge victorious in the ensuing battle royale. Wow.
I straighten out this lie in the next line: “Bardd Americanaidd tumffat yng nghanol y Stomp.” “Actually, I’m just a stupid American poet trying to hold me own in the Stomp.” Another secret of Slam success: flip the script! Set up a high image, and then undercut it with your own vulnerability.
The next lines reference my aforementioned debt to hiphop. Hiphop is part of my lineage, too—for a while there in the 80s my tag was the Plain White Rapper. To write this section took painstaking work at the Blaenau llyfrgell (library) with a correlating a rhyming dictionary and a Welsh-English dictionary—why oh why is there no rhyming Welsh-English Dictionary?
Eisiau ymddiheuriad? dim posibiliad...
Eisiau nghyfeiriad? Dyna ddiffiniad o wrthddywediad
A distrywio’r diffiniad!
My address? The definition of randomness
The contradiction of definition!
This also gives a nod to the course I’ve developed at Columbia, “Exploding Text: Poetry Performance,” using extra-literary means to add even more meanings to a poem via collaborations with film, dance, theater, et al.
After this jangly, dirty, provocative opening, I felt it was time for some “real” poetry, and being a “real” poet myself I knew just what lines to use: steal them, from a couple of great poets.
Hen Gychwr Afon Angau, // mae o’n gwbod
Beth ydwyt ti a minnau, frawd
Ond swp o esgyrn mewn gwisg o gnawd
Old River Boatman Death (Rwilliams Parry), he knows it
What art thou and I, brother
But in a uniform batch of bones of flesh
I was truly hoping someone in the audience would out me here (I should have had a plant!), so that my next barrage, taking personal blame not only for my plagerism but also for every crime ever committed during the horrific triumph of Capitalism known as US Imperialism would have more resonance:
Dygwyd y llinellau uchod ar eich cyfer oddi ar
R Williams Parry a TH Parry Williams yn enw
The lines above stolen on your behalf from R Williams Parry & TH Parry Williams in the name of American Imperialism!
This is followed by the lines from “Language Matters.”
Cynghanedd, defended from the orality of the skalds, has been an integral part of Welsh has survived. Hopwood confesses at one point that she believes you can only truly write cynghanedd in the language that evolved in tandem with the poetic form: Cymraeg (Welsh). In essence, her whole lovely how-to is actually nothing but a piece of propaganda for the perpetuation of Welsh.
Cymru, the Welsh word for Wales, means Us, The People. “Wales” is a Saxon word, what the Saxons, the first conquering invaders of Wales, called the Celts there—“The others,” “Those guys over there.” Isn’t it time for the world’s nations to be known by the name that their people call themselves?
And now, the Grand Finale:
Baby baby yr unig ffordd o atal y gerdd hon – yw cusanu cusanu
Lle mae pob cusan yn dod yn air Cymraeg
Yn fy mhen a’i lond o freuddwydion
Baby baby the only way to stop this poem is to kiss kiss
Where each kiss becomes a word in Welsh
in My Big Head of Dreams
It’s true that my relationship with Welsh is a lot like having a lover—you have to give everything and there’s always more and thank goodness it’s never enough. But my head of dreams – in English I wanted this to be my big head, big enough to hold all these languages and the idea that somehow or other that this piece of theater, sacrificing myself on the pyre that is the Stomp, would show my love and respect for Welsh, that I would go to his extreme in order to bring my own personal touch to a documentary that is all about the essence of humanity, which I believe language is, but which can also be talked about in theories and data where it’s possible human contact may be lost.
Of the 12 poets who made it to the National Poetry Slam, Dewi and I were the first two names out of the hat. We went up against each other, splitting our supporters’ votes, and giving the first round to some brilliant whippersnapper poet who had somehow made cynghanedd a mode of conversation—brilliant! As if Byron were crossed with Frank O’Hara, say.
Because we were knocked out in the first round, the crew was able to shoot a wrap-up, right then and there, full of loss that meant nothing, and surrounded by a language that had taught me important truths that would infuse the whole film. And my life.
After the wrap, the crew really wanted to hit the road. I felt bad—for the poet to leave a reading early is bad form, in any language. But it was already late, and our flight back to the States was at 8:00 the next morning, and we had to drive to Llundain, and the Welsh sky was already ablaze. And my big head was full of big dreams but no way sleeping.
The poem and translation below are published in my most recent collection,Sing This One Back to Me (2013, Coffee House).
Ffwciwch Oma! Dwin Ffwcin Dysgwr Ffwcin Gymraeg!
Rwy'n teimlo fel y ddraig goch yng nghanol y frwydr
Bardd Americanaidd tumffat yng nghanol y Stomp
Eisiau ymddiheuriad? dim posibiliad...
Eisiau nghyfeiriad? Dyna ddiffiniad o wrthddywediad
A distrywio’r diffiniad!
A dach chi’n gwybod pam?
Mi dduda’i thach chi pam!
Achos -- mod i'n Ffwcin Dysgwr Ffwcin Gymraeg,
Dyna ffwcin pam!!!!!
Hen Gychwr Afon Angau, // mae o’n gwbod
Beth ydwyt ti a minnau, frawd
Ond swp o esgyrn mewn gwisg o gnawd
Dygwyd y llinellau uchod ar eich cyfer oddi ar
R Williams Parry a TH Parry Williams yn enw
Foneddigion a Boneddigesau!
Fy llinell gyntaf o gynghanedd:
“Yn ysgwyd yn fy esgyrn”
Mae’n wir wyddoch chi –
Dwi YN “ysgwyd yn fy esgyrn”!
A dach chi’n gwbod pam?
Achos fy mod i'n Ffwcin Dysgwr Ffwcin Gymraeg,
Dyna ffwcin pam!!!
Baby baby yr unig ffordd o atal y gerdd hon – yw cusanu
Lle mae pob cusan yn dod yn air Cymraeg
Yn fy mhen a’i lond o freuddwydion
Fuck Off, I’m a Fuckin Welsh Fuckin Learner!
(That’s the Title)
I feel like The Red Dragon In the Middle of Battle
stupid American poet in the middle of the Stomp
Want an apology? No possibility!
My address? The definition of randomness (The contradiction of definition)
And you know why?
I'll tell you why!
Cause I’m a Fuckin Welsh Fuckin Learner, that's why
Old River Boatman Death (Rwilliams Parry), he knows it
What art thou and I, brother
But in a uniform batch of bones of flesh
The lines above stolen on your behalf from R Williams Parry & TH arry Williams in the name of American Imperialism!
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!
My first line of cynghanedd!
“Shaking in my bones”
It’s true you know
I AM “shaking in my bones”!
And do you know why?
Because I’m a fuckin Welsh fuckin learner that’s fuckinwhy!
Baby baby the only way to stop this poem is to kiss kiss
Where each kiss becomes a word in Welsh
In My Big Head of Dreams
And so I made my first trip to Hawaii. It’s a long way from everywhere, specks of black lava, folded green jewels in the middle of the largest body of water on the planet – you will now know that, Hawaii is the further from a continent than any other on the planet. No wonder the creation story here, the Kumulipo, begins underwater, with the creation of fish, coral and octopus, and rises up with the spirit of Pele, the Goddess of Fire, a real place—the active volcano in the center of the Big Island. Pele is a real person, too. I met her many-times-Great Granddaughter, Pele Harmann, a teacher at Nawahi, the K-12 immersion school outside Hilo where I spent many a day hearing No English. It’s an honor to be allowed to step inside someone else’s culture. Tread lightly. As Pele said to me, “To you it’s a myth. To me it’s my genealogy.”
This is what you learn. That unlike the rest of the world’s crises, the Language Crisis has a seemingly simple answer: Respect Mother tongues. Let the children born into minority languages live there as much as possible. They will get plenty of the bully language as soon as they walk out the door, as soon as they turn on the TV.
Today there are Hawaiian language immersion schools on every island, but back in the 60s there were none. The number of speakers had shrunk to about 400 with most of them living on the tiny island of Ni’ihau, which was owned (still is) by a single family who allow no non-Hawaiians to set foot there. So the native population lives on in a kind of time capsule of pure Hawaiian. When Larry Kimura, the godfather of the Hawaiian language, and his Hawaiian language students at the University of Hawaii Manao came to the conclusion that just speaking Hawaiian with each other for hours a day was not making the kind of substantive change necessary to keep Hawaiian culture alive, they decided the way forward was to start schools where children would learn Hawaiian the way all children learn languages – by hearing, by mimicking, by conversing. By spending time in a place where the sound environment was always the flowing lilt and glottal stops of Hawaiian. This was the beginning of the punana leo, a language nest. Here children would spend hours daily in a protected place—a nest of Hawaiian. Parents must accompany their little ones (3 months to 5 years ) here, and parents too are bound by the rules. So they end up learning baby Hawaiian, just to keep up with their child. I’m sitting there and a toddler purposefully approaches and starts speaking to me—in Hawaiian. Wants me to read him a book in Hawaiian. I oblige—I may not know all the meanings, but I can read the words, and I’m learning, like he is. But I don’t speak Hawaiian! I’d said to the teacher. Not yet, was her reply.
It was a few kapunas (elders, but like so many Hawaiian words, much more than elders), those remaining from the 400 speakers in 1960, who brought the sounds and traditions of real Hawaiian direct to these students. Auntie Lolena Nichols—I could devote a whole blog to how kinship patterns in orality are as complex as nuclear fission, but right now let’s just say “Auntie”—was one of these native speakers from Ni’ihau. These days she divides her time between the children at the punana leo and graduate students at the University of Hawaii, Manao. In oral consciousness, people are books, and as the language activist/scholar Puakea Nogelmeier is fond of saying, Auntie Lolena is a PhD in living Hawaiian. When I first met Lolena, I presumed a Hawaiian greeting: forehead to forehead, nose to nose, you breathe in the breath of the other. Lolena’s power almost knocked me over.
Nogelmeier, himself is a very special man with a deliciously deep voice. You get to hear it every time you take a bus in Honolulu. Most of the streets still have their original Hawaiian names, but as the language died out so did proper pronunciation. The names became haole, the Hawaiian word for white people, but as the language movement (not Bernstein/Andrews, but the push for mother tongue survival) gained momentum one of the successes was hearing Puakea’s dulcet tones pronounce real Hawaii’an as you take public transportation in Honolulu.
One thing you notice right away in the language is the ‘okina, the glottal stop, considered an actual letter in Hawaiian, one of eight consonants. There are five vowels. Thirteen letters altogether, and one of them is the silent “hitch” you hear when you say uh-oh. Having a language with such a few number of letters, each of which is pronounced in only one way (well, vowels are short and long, but long just means they are longer, not that they have a different sound), gives Hawaiian only 18 phonemes, one of the fewest of any language (English has 57, the Koisan click languages over 140).
It also makes Hawaiian an extremely easy language for speakers to read. Think of the evolution of written English, its centuries of inconsistent spellings and idiosyncratic pronunciations. How different it was for literacy to arrive in Hawaii. When the first missionaries arrived in 1820, they quickly developed a written language and translated the Bible into Hawaiian, the better to convert the populace. They gained the full support of the royal family, who even at this time were considered not the descendants of gods, but actual gods. And when these kings and queens took up the advocacy of reading, it took less than fifty years for Hawaii to surpass the Mainland in literacy, eventually having one of the highest literacy rates in the world. It was said that Hawaiians could read upside-down – because of the lack of reading material, four people would stand around a book or newspaper – two read sideways, one straight on, one upside down.
One of the reasons this happened was the advent of Hawaiian newspapers. Over the next 100 years, more than 100 native language newspapers were founded. But it wasn’t the news they were reporting, it was the incredibly rich Oral culture that they were recording. Every endangered language that is being revived develops techniques for adding vocabulary for new things and concepts (computer, cell pone, defriend, Pringle-ization), and for words that have been lost. But it’s only Hawaii, where the people fell so in love with reading that now researchers can “mine” this trove to find forgotten vocabulary, ideas for new words, and still hear the voices from the days when the language was teeming with energy, the essence of Hawaiian culture full flower.
I want to talk about my visit with William Merwin, who of course lives in Haiku on the island on Maui, telling me that Hawaiian will be back when it is “considered a first language, when you make jokes in it, play around with it.” I want to travel way up the mountain and tell you about my visit with Keali’I Richel,who told me how hula became the way that language survived during the years that the American colonists outlawed it, how “you can have a hula poem without the dance, but you can’t have the dance without the poem.” I want you to meet Kaui sa-Dudoit, the Mother of the Language Movement, whose dozen kids all grew up in immersion schools, all rebelled as teenagers and stopped, and all came back.
And I want you to see David Grubin and me actually getting in the water, up to our knees, daring the Pacific in our bermudas, trying to write a poem while the waves tried to push us over. But instead, it is time to go to Wales, and meet a language that has survived for over a thousand years while the powerful onslaught of bully English ruled the land.
I’M WRITING THIS in a room that contains a number of pictures, mostly by women, as it happens. One is byJane Freilicher, a still life in pastel that brings together a half-dozen miscellaneous objects, including a few roses that are having the floral equivalent of a bad hair day, a reddish-brown pamphlet that was probably an address book sent to customers by the phone company (remember those?) and a copy of Art News, flopping over the edge of the table, confronting the viewer, in the time-honored tradition of trompe-l'oeil perspective, but also subtly spoofing it. Jane gave the pastel to me once, perhaps to commemorate my becoming an editor at Art News in 1965 and moving back to New York after ten years in France.
"Salute" by A. R. Ammons
from The Really Short Poems of A. R. Ammons
1. After an entire lifetime in South Florida, I now live 3,000 miles away on the central coast of California, in a small city ringed by mountains and bordered by a Pacific which appears paler and vaster than the Caribbean-Atlantic I have always known. This is where I hear that the Cuban embargo is unraveling, the news a fragment floating from my car radio right before I turn off the ignition to trundle groceries from the trunk to our garden apartment. The U.S. will further ease travel restrictions to the island, open an embassy, lift some trade and banking sanctions. It is as if a mythic bird has winged overhead and I’ve only caught a glimpse of a few bright feathers. My first thought is what was that? It doesn’t really register.
2. I get busy putting away eggs and carrots grown at nearby farms. But the news keeps simmering somewhere inside me, a place as intrinsic to me as my ardor for lists or the invisible work of my lungs. It is the tiny island of Cubania I have carried within me since I was a child, born in the U.S. and trying to belong in Miami, a city that, in the 70s, still viewed my Cuban family and so many other recent immigrants as outsiders, no matter how quickly we learned English and how hard we worked.
3. As a young girl, I saw Fidel Castro as the camouflaged villain standing between the rotary phone in our kitchen and my family in Havana, whom we could only talk to briefly and on rare occasion. I’d shout in Spanish over the crackle of lines and wonder what their faces looked like. We didn’t have any pictures of them. When I eavesdropped on talk of Castro’s demise, a long-cherished topic in Miami, I imagined a scene much like the one in the The Wizard of Oz, where an oppressor is felled with one crashing stroke. Everyone is giddy and sings in three-part harmonies. A land returns to color, and instead of shoes, two black boots would curl and crumble to dust.
4. I think about this part of my childhood when I think of Cubans on the true island-nation, who, like we once did, have begun their own migration from perceived outcasts to rightful neighbors, with whom we share bloodlines and friendships and a percussive, slangy Spanish. I'm not talking about those who created a palm-fringed prison of the body and its free will. I mean the everyday Cubans who have kept on keeping on. Their relentless optimism and resourcefulness are at the core of Cubanía, something that is also seen in the micro, self-written psalm of my people: Todo se resuelve. Everything will work out.
5. In my imagined island of Cubanía, there is a little boat anchored near the shore and a blue-striped cabana on the beach. It contains a crazy-quilt of culture:
*café con leche, large, and a reservoir of pastelitos de guayaba;
*homespun altars to Changó (whose Cuban-Catholic twin is Santa Barbara - at left) and La Caridad del Cobre (Cuba's patron saint);
* a garden of white roses and un hombre sincero (first known as José Martí);
*dichos in Spanish like eso es un arroz con mango (Literal meaning: This is a plate of rice and mango. True meaning: What a mess) and tienes que echar pa'lante (Literally: You must move forward. Truly: Never give up);
*every song Celia Cruz has ever sung with La Sonora Matancera and the Fania All Stars and all the solo stuff, especially that little snippet of a sound check where she’s in Zaire with Fania and busts out la “Guantaramera” in that magma-from-the-earth’s-core timbre of hers and then starts dancing, gliding away from the mic as if caught in the happiest of dreams.
* Wifredo Lam’s oil on canvas, Le sombre Malembo, Dieu du carrefour / Dark Malembo, God of the Crossroads.
*my mother's voice, which can sound like a chime or a siren, depending on the topic of conversation (Chime: I am so proud of you, mima. Siren: Please don't talk to me about Obama).
6. My mother, a Cuban-born American, is intensely Republican, and I am an American-born Cuban and a progressive. When our president won his second term, my mother told my brother she couldn't talk to me for a few days because she didn't want to hear me gloat and because she couldn't bear to see this country go down the same socialist-communist road that Cuba had traveled for more than five decades. My mother confiding to my brother, who passes it along to me, all of this over the phone, because, in my family, a conversation so intimate is unbearable to hold in person. Another Cubanía: Do not confront a person you love with your truthful unpleasantries but freely discuss with others, who will then share them on your behalf.
7. The god of the crossroads stands in a brilliant thicket of green. In my favorite painting by Wifredo Lam, the Afro-Cuban modernist, the deity also known as Elegua in the Santería faith spreads his cloak around a host of horned heads and leaves, an assembly of watchful eyes.
8. My friends and I, or at least those of us excited by the news, have burned up our phones and laptops with Cuba jabber: articles and songs and old photographs posted and shared; written responses on blogs and magazines; talk of how it all arrived on the 17th, the feast day of Babalú Ayé, the Santería counterpart to San Lázaro, the Spanish-Catholic saint of healing. We parsed the president’s speech and how, in what my friend Dan Vera called “a baller move,” Obama quoted José Martí, the 19th-century poet-journalist-activist who fought hard to liberate Cubans from Spanish rule and whose words are often invoked by both island communists and exiles as a tribute to independence. “Liberty is the right for every man to be honest,” said Martí, “to think and speak without hypocrisy.”
9. I have spoken to my mother about Christmas plans and presents, what time we will Skype. We have not discussed Cuba yet. It might take years. We are both the Great Avoiders and neither one of us wants to tear into this ticking box because we love each other more than we revile one another’s politics. And while I have found many of her other stances infuriating, I can only feel a kind of protectiveness towards her now, towards all exiles who are pro-embargo. After living in our community for so long, I understand what is at stake for my mother, for so many. They are losing everything all over again. To them, normalizing relations with the Cuban government means the Castros not only stole all they loved — they finally got away with it.
10. Because I am a poet, and thus, a hoarder of images, I kept a notebook that catalogued the details of my farewells before I moved to Santa Barbara from South Florida: the ibis that flashed white while they flew by our windows each dusk, how my brother rocks forward when he’s laughing hard, friends cooking dinner or playing guitars. It felt important to write down what would no longer be in short reach, but I was hardly engulfed in sorrow. How would I feel if I knew I might not see any of it again? What do I know about that kind of heartbreak? Not much.
11. Empirical fact: There is no one as patriotic as an immigrant-turned-citizen. When I visited Miami in
November, I overheard two Latinas at the car rental discussing plumbing problems. In Spanish and English, they shrugged it off and noted how in this country, that kind of thing was easy to resolver. Both nodded their heads in unison and shared a mmmmm-hhhmm. Subtext: The U.S. rules. In South Florida, Cubans, Haitians, Dominicans, and Venezuelans fly their American flags right alongside the flags of their birthplace, staked on the porches of their homes or flapping from their cars. Their chit-chat is an intricate brocade of English and their first tongue, often in the same sentence, their meals a patchwork of, say, barbecue hamburgers served up with yucca and the ubiquitous rice and beans. In July, my mother texted all of her friends and family to celebrate the anniversary of her arrival to this country. “52 years in the good ole USA,” she tapped. “The best country in the world.” I’ve heard the latter six words from so many immigrants; I’ve lost count.
12. Perhaps assimilation, in its realest sense, is not an obliteration of the past, but the making of a new kind of space, one that holds what “was” in the same open hands with what “is.” At 14medio, an independent online daily launched in Cuba, dissident and writer Yoani Sanchez reported Cubans blowing kisses at President Obama when his announcement was televised in Havana. “Now and again the cry of “I LOVE…” (in English!) could be heard from around the corner.” Are these the beginnings of Cubans and exiles stitching a new embroidery, a cautious piecing together of here and there, them and us, what happened with what we all might become? After half a century that also feels like the quick flick of a wand, I am hopeful. We are moving towards one another again.
Hello friends - this is Jess Smith with my second installment on fitness and writing. Thank you all for your thoughts on last week's piece.
For the next few weeks I'll be exploring the connection between physical fitness and writing. Long obsessed with both, I'm hoping to examine the relationship between the body and the pursuit of writing from many angles - why are so many of the most exciting poets I know also obsessive runners? Why are so many of the poets I know former hardcore athletes, some of them even flirting with professional status? Alternately, why do some writers slyly criticize the pursuit of physical fitness? Is fitness an addiction like anything else, and we poets are somehow more prone to be seduced by its high?
And, as with any work, I'm excited to explore questions I've long had about myself and my own dogged pursuit of fitness, often at the sacrifice of sitting down to write. I look forward to posting here and to hearing your thoughts on the matter, all you poet-athletes out there.
For my second post, a meditation on illness, family, and how I dealt with my body and my writing when my mother was sick. That's her holding my hand at her wedding in 1988. Big hair = big love. Happy reading and happy weekend.
First, she said it was a stomach bug. Nothing to worry about. Then she called me to say, okay, it’s a lump. A lump I have to have removed. Three days later, finally, she said it: cancer.
Sometimes, when you have a horrible suspicion, it almost feels good to have it confirmed. The relief of substantiation.
While I do not always write about my mother, she is present in everything that I write. She has often struggled with her appearance in my work. Ever my biggest supporter and number one fan, it’s still not easy to be criticized or dramatized by your daughter. I’ve also appropriated some of her stories - mostly because they are so totally amazing and crazy - but I’ve never known how to just write about her. It’s always around her, next to her, or she’s operating as an overseer, some high Southern priestess hovering above my work. A mentor whose mother passed away when he was a teenager put this phenomenon well when he told me “No matter what poem I’m writing, my mother is always dead in that poem.”
Though I have a large and exceptionally close family, my mother is the epicenter of my writing world. For many reasons (all of them sad), my father has not been a part of my life since I was a child. My mother and I had a few hardscrabble years in there where it was her and me against the world. I don’t think either one of us has quite lost that sensation.
Because poetry begins where words fail us, it is the only medium in which I’ve ever adequately been able to approximate my devotion to her, my worry for her, and - sometimes - my anger.
When she received her diagnosis, the oncologists were roundly optimistic. The tumor was small and caught very early. She was young. Though they could not say it would be an easy process, it would be easier than most. And, most importantly, her chances of survival were excellent, virtually foolproof. Barring complications, of course.
I felt relieved, gratified. I felt like we’d all been sleeping next door to a bar with a neon sign flashing cancer at all hours, keeping us awake and afraid, and now we could close the blinds and get a little rest.
I fantasized about her recovery, how she would take up running and yoga. How bright her skin would be. How her sweet, skinny little arms would get the shadow of definition. I read up on the long-term benefits of exercise. I force-fed her journal studies on heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and all manner of cancer. She had always been a sporadic gym-goer but once she got well, I believed, working out would serve as both atonement and salvation.
Communication is big vat of pressurized steam: if it can’t find its way out in words, it will find it way out in tears. Or laughter. Or sex. Or violence. If we refuse our need to share with each other, it will grow and deform inside of us. No matter how often we lie, the body does not.
When students or friends have said to me “I just don’t get poetry,” I want to yell. Or laugh. Or jump on them and shake their shoulders and say of course you do. There is more than one way to understand a thing.
“Poetry speaks to the ways we are silent with each other,” said the poet Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Everyone knows this silence. Poetry creates communion by exploring it.
My silence, when my mother was ill, manifested itself as incessant chatter, an unbroken conversation about fitness loud enough that I wouldn’t be able to hear anything else over the din.
Mostly my mother smiled and asked for ice chips when I rambled on about green juices and marathon training. She fell asleep a few times, at which point I would go for a very long run. During the month I was home after her surgery, it seemed I could do nothing but exercise, read about exercise, and tell other people about exercise. I did not write or pick up a book or even watch television that demanded anything of me beyond passive observance (think What Not to Wear and old Dick Van Dyke Show reruns). I didn’t practice yoga once.
One afternoon I went in to check on her and tell her about some things she could do to help improve her circulation. Vascular recovery, I said. Inflammation. She nodded, green eyes half-closed, and said she would try whatever I suggested. Picturing myself a doctor or at the very least some romantic wartime nurse, I pulled back the covers took her calves into my hands. She was so thin, her muscles so atrophied, that her entire body felt as substantial as an earlobe. I almost dropped her from the shock.
Propping her legs up on pillows while she grimaced, moving her knees so that they were at the exact right angle, I went on and on about cell regeneration, stress hormones, adding green tea to your daily diet.
There is a line in the novel Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee where he writes that his protagonist, David Lurie, has “never been afraid to follow a thought down its winding track, and he isn’t afraid now.” I have always clung to this notion of the true intellectual, one who is not afraid of thoughts but only actions. That we must, in fact, entertain all manner of perverse, disturbing, overstimulating thoughts to understand anything to its fullest.
The one thought I cannot abide, though, the winding track I’ve never followed, is my own mother’s mortality. The boundary where she begins and I end is blurry, at best, and I’ve long felt responsible for the perpetuation of her existence. I write about her so often to show the world this extraordinary, maddening woman. To do her honor by recreating her in her many forms. To keep her alive forever.
It took me a long time to understand that I was angry at my mother for getting cancer, that I had silently been ticking off a list of her sins:
She drank too much Tab in 1992-93.
She stressed herself out over stupid things.
She didn’t eat enough vegetables.
She didn’t eat enough in general.
More than anything, I felt a well of fury that the idea of her death - unthinkable to me - seemed even remotely reasonable to her. That even the flicker of acquiescence had darkened her face. This fury did not take into account the terror she must have felt, the disconnection from her body which she could no longer trust, the fundamental unspeakability of illness. It was, like most rage, a position of pure selfishness.
My plans for her body, her post-cancer recovery, were a way of judging her. Wagging my terrified, fit finger at her and demanding she do it my way. So that I might be less afraid.
I heard Cheryl Strayed speak at a conference two summers ago about her own mother’s cancer. We were about the same age when our mothers got sick, but Strayed’s mother did not survive. She said that sometimes she still goes into a sort of fugue state she deemed squirrel-brain - as a squirrel searches for food thinking only nut nut nut, sometimes she catches the loop of her empty brain crying mommy mommy mommy.
I believe the best poetry has more to do with this mindset, with working to both escape and describe the impulsive heart trap, than it does with perfectly formed, measured thoughts. I wrote probably a hundred poems about my mother’s illness. I wrote about how it wasn’t so bad, how it was awful, and I wrote about how it just was. I wrote in the voice of my sisters, in the voice of my mother’s husband, in the voices of strangers. They were benedictions, they were formal letters of complaint to God, they were remedial worksheets in learning a new language: “the unwell form of the verb mother is conjugated as…” It was like fumbling around for a lightswitch in a windowless room only to find there’s no bulb dangling from the ceiling.
None of the poems were any good because I was still so far inside it. I’m not even sure I will ever write anything valuable about my mother because my feelings for her are so bright, so loud, so undisciplined.
Today my mother is in full remission. While she did not fit her plans for recovery into my manic fitness rubric, she did change her life. Something in her is quieter now, gentler without being afraid. As her own parents face their mortality, I watch her slip into the same squirrel-brain that I did when she was ill. Her eyes a little glassy, her breath slower for a moment. And I know we are all just holding our hands up to the future, hoping to press it back a few days, hours, minutes longer. I know I am writing to get beyond the fact that it will never be enough.
Originally from Georgia, Jess Smith now lives and works in New York City. Her work can be found in Sixth Finch, Phantom Limb, Ghost Town, The Best American Poetry Blog, Lumina, and other journals. She received her MFA from The New School in 2013.
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.