Guest Post, Liz Robbins: Generation Vex: Returning to Walls

Butterfly PaintingLast week, I had a conversation with a visual artist about the challenges of making art as we age. I’ll turn forty-six in December, and my friend is near there. I’ve read the statistics: the average poet peaks in her twenties; artists tend to be more in line with novelists, creating their best work in their forties (lucky guy). Still, with modern life and its distractions (see Anthony Varallo’s good post on interruption), finding inspiration tends to become more problematic with age.

The artist and I briefly discussed strategies we’ve tried to keep the wheels turning. He’s a pro: a gifted painter who reinvented his artistic identity by trying—and mastering—a new genre (video). He’s secured artist residencies. He’s earned a sabbatical. Yet he juggles a full-time teaching gig with a brilliant, lively family, which is to say, he drinks a lot of coffee. He’s constantly weighing appropriate balance and space—responsibilities galore, but good ones, ones crackling with depth and possibility. I struggle to find space—and inspiration within that space—for art in similar ways. In recent years, it’s been in the playgrounds of other art mediums, which sometimes means excellent live music shows, but often means wherever fresh contemporary visual art can be found locally; when on the Flagler College campus, where I teach, I frequent CEAM (the Crisp Ellert Art Museum). This is nothing new: poets have written ekphrastic poems since the beginning, many of them great and lasting (ie. Auden’s “Musee Des Beaux Arts”). And this is perhaps because there’s a certain kind of attention required of visual art—how color works to convey mood, for instance, or how vital a fresh concept to the work’s success—that helps remind us of important elements in poem-making. Not every poet has the same hurdles when it comes to making poems, but one of mine tends to be getting hyper-focused on the linear argument—that which I find most interesting, chasing the a-ha! moment—and therefore getting lazy about filling in with lush details. Or filling in the details, but not presenting them in strange or original ways. Another challenge is finding new themes: my obsessions have gone through the wash twenty times; all that hot water has faded and shrunk them. Spending a few hours with a visual artist’s work tends to get fresh angles spinning. For instance, one of my more recent riffs came courtesy of Anna Von Mertens, a highly-accomplished multi-media artist, currently living in New Hampshire. In this series, she’s taking well-known portraits (often self-portraits by artists like Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo) and from them, creating auras, using cloth, stitching, and homemade dye. Gorgeous. Mind-blowing. When I saw some of these in a CEAM exhibit, I immediately wanted to talk back to them, create a kind of tribute to them in poems. The result was a series of “aura” poems, using largely the Confessional poets. Here’s one:

aura: james wright
the head and torso shape that of a supplicant,
a nonbeliever in prayer, the eyes closed below
their frames, hands clasped at the heart, but the heart’s
red is the opposite of the dominant pigment, green: sap green
that breaks into flowering, o, Monet’s fields and water lilies
seeding and bursting beneath surfaces, all grown-blessed
in permanent green light . . . . Jenny the muse in hooker’s green:
river-rising just enough to be seen, he will wade in over
his head into the snake’s viridian venom, in the background
Van Gogh’s mother portrait, where the world’s players
smash against each other, competing terribly–
who wouldn’t waste a life for the naive green just breaking
into gallop? the wild fields blossoming?

As you can see, I’ve selected a dominant color palette that represents the poet/his work (green, with nods to significant painters who worked famously in green) and made allusions to Wright’s most well-known poems. What I’m most interested in is the conversation, the stimulation that arose from it. A familiar paradox, but one that bears repeating: artists must carve out vacuums in order to make art, yet art is not inspired by such vacuums, but life itself. In support of the collaboration of visual art and poetic inspiration, I bring my students to CEAM every semester, to view what riches our director has procured and to respond in poems; part of my own making process comes in designing prompts unique to the artist’s work. This experience is for them, for me, the dominant lesson: that the art-making engine runs on nouvelles idées, that we must constantly see potential inspiration everywhere and seek it out. If we’re young, the challenge comes in developing the habit; if we’re older, it’s in sustaining it. The irony, of course, with this particular mode: that the new ideas come from ideas already examined, though differently, by other makers. Another paradox (the soul of poetry).

Editorial Preferences in Fiction: John Chakravarty

Reading submissions for Superstition Review allowed me to think about the stories I love to read. I’ve found that the best stories have a character I can connect with, and also an interesting problem.

There are so many elements that can make a piece of writing good. The first thing that comes to mind is characterization, which means creating round characters, with both internal and external struggles, and a full life that exists outside the page. My sister says that when she finishes a good book, she sometimes misses the characters and the time that she’s spent with them. One of my professors will always remind us in class not to say the word character, because writers are actually creating souls.

But it’s not enough to have an interesting character sitting in a room doing nothing. What makes a character truly endearing and relatable is their problems and how they choose to deal with them. Even Nick Carroway and Jay Gatsby without their dramatic love affairs would likely not hold a reader’s attention very long.

This is where I feel we get the human experience: when we read about someone relatable that has a problem foreign to us. Or someone that is completely foreign to us, and how they’ve overcome their problems (or not). Stories are about what a character wants and what they are willing to go through to get it. These struggles create an empathetic connection between the reader and the outside world.

Scientific American recently highlighted a study that found reading literary fiction helps young students to learn empathy. The experiment presented young groups with various types of reading; literary fiction, genre fiction, nonfiction, and nothing. The young readers that read literary fiction were significantly stronger at inferring others’ thoughts and emotions. Through seeing someone else’s trials and tribulations, a person is able to learn better how to interpret other people.

Interesting souls with interesting problems create the basis of fiction that empathetically moves readers. These are the kinds of stories that I love; stories that help to build an understanding of the world around us.

Fiction Editor for Issue 20 of Superstition Review

Bio: John Chakravarty is an undergraduate student at ASU majoring in English and Creative Writing. He is the Fiction Editor at Superstition Review. He also interns at Four Chambers Press reading submissions. When he graduates he hopes to write, edit, and publish for the comic book industry.

Guest Post: Beth Gilstrap

After Nick Hornby

Self Portrait

School Years

Bathroom Floor

Not As Long As You'd Think

English Class

Cornell Quote

Knife

Journal Entry

Remember Me

Self Portrait

Pills

It's Dark In Here

Dedication: For all writers who struggle with mental illness. But particularly, for Aubrie Cox Warner and Jill Talbot who, whether they realize it or not, continue to inspire me to be vulnerable and open. With thanks to Ben Barnes for assistance with self-portraits and so much more.

Intern Update: Elijah Matthew Tubbs

A warm welcome on this warm afternoon, everybody! Today, Superstition Review is proud beyond reason to announce that former intern Elijah Matthew Tubbs, who was with us for the Fall of 2015 and the Spring of 2016, was recently featured by the good folks over at Passages North, an annual literary journal sponsored by Northern Michigan University, with his poem titled “In through a Door, out a Window.” Elijah is the founder of ELKE “a little journal,” which you can check out here, and his poem over at Northern Passages can be read here. Our congratulations to Elijah, and to our dear readers, stay posted for further updates on the successes of the staff and contributors of Superstition Review.

Former intern Elijah Matthew Tubbs, whose poem "In through a Window, out a Door" was featured over at Northern Passages.

Former intern Elijah Matthew Tubbs, whose poem “In through a Window, out a Door” was featured over at Northern Passages.

Contributor Update: Jennifer Givhan

Good afternoon, dear readers! We here at Superstition Review are thrilled to announce that past contributor Jennifer Givhan, who was featured in the Poetry section of our 14th issue, has won the 2017 Blue Light Books Prize for her collection “Girl With Death Mask.” Says contest judge Ross Gay “How many times I found myself looking into space, sort of shaken, sort of grasping, turning and turning inside a line or phrase, inside an image or metaphor, inside some devastating music while reading these poems, I do not know. But again and again. Put it like that.  These poems beautifully, convincingly do what I hope poems might–they disrupt what I know, or what I thought I knew. And in that way they invent for me a world.  A world haunted and brutal, yes. But one mended, too, by the love and tenderness and vision and magic by which these poems are made.” The winning collection will be published in 2018 by Indiana University Press, but you can get a taste of Givhan’s work now, by checking out her poem here.

Stay posted for more contributor updates!

Past contributor Jennifer Givhan, whose collection of poetry “Girl With Death Mask” won the 2017 Blue Light Books Prize.

Contributor Update: Victor Lodato

Morning, readers! Today we’ve got a spectacular bit of news: past contributor Victor Lodato, who was featured in the Interviews section of our 8th issue (which can be read here), has published his newest novel, titled “Edgar & Lucy,” out now from St. Martin’s Press. Hailed by the New York Times as a “riveting and exuberant ride,” Lodato’s novel can be purchased here. Do yourself a favor and read the novel Lodato spent ten years in the making, and see for yourself exactly why we here at  Superstition Review think that “Edgar & Lucy” is destined to be your new favorite book.

Buy this book!

“Edgar & Lucy,” the new novel out from St. Martin’s Press by past contributor Victor Lodato.

Contributor Update: Darrin Doyle

Well howdy, readers! This afternoon, Superstition Review is glad to announce that past contributor Darrin Doyle, who was featured in the Interviews section of our 8th issue (which can be read here) and the Fiction section of our 16th issue (which can be read here), has recently released the first album from his rock/folk/karate trio Daryl & the Beans, titled Burnin’ the Eagle, which can be purchased here. The album itself is $8, and all proceeds from the sale of this record go to funding a scholarship for students in the Creative Writing program at Central Michigan University. If you’re so inclined, feel free to up the proverbial ante and pitch a few extra bucks toward this wonderful cause when you purchase the album! Do yourself, and the students of Central Michigan University, a huge favor and purchase Burnin’ the Eagle.

Buy this record!

Burnin’ The Eagle, the debut album from Daryl & the Beans, featuring past contributor Darrin Doyle.