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).

Guest Post: Christine Brandel

Words on the Paper of Skin

My Body

My body is a palimpsest:

you cannot read her writing.

He will be unable to read yours.

I confess that when I first wrote this poem, I was thinking about lovers. About the way those we love leave their marks on us — on our skin, our mouths, our hearts — and the way those marks fade but do not disappear as time passes and love fades and may or may not disappear.

The more I sat with the image, though, the more I realized my body is covered in the words of so many others — friends I’ve cared for, enemies I’ve cursed, strangers who loitered long enough to leave traces. Some were written in indelible ink, others with a lighter touch, but my hide has been dried under tension, and washing with milk and oat bran will never get this parchment completely clean.

In the right light, I can read it all.

On my feet I see action words, reminders that I can wait or run, stand or fall. My knees say please and up my thighs are lines of lyrics (or are they limericks?). Across my belly sits the word empty. No matter how hard I scrub it with pumice, the curves and tails of those letters remain. My chest bears remnants of an animal’s fear and a surgeon’s signature, and the writing on my breasts, well, that I choose not to share with you.

My back is covered with what looks like court stenographers’ notes — each scribble symbolizing my exact whereabouts on the dates in question and the precise lengths of each of my sentences. Over my shoulders are my first doctor’s orders: the pain will never go away. Twenty years later, a different doctor drew a line through his diagnosis, but she did not rewrite it. The pain is still there under the skin — all she did was take away its name. The marks on my throat are my music teacher’s words. They’re too blurry now to read, but I know they are the reason I only sing when I’m alone.

Every day my face reveals more lines. There are jokes around my mouth and riddles on my forehead. Farewells trail from the corners of my eyes. Along my limbal rings are the details of my birth, and deep in one pupil, there’s a no, in the other, a yes. My scalp says fuck you. I occasionally clip my hair to let those words get some air.

My hands are a bit different. They’re my manuscript. They are the one place on my person I’ve never let someone else’s pen tip touch. They are scarred by my words alone. My wrist says try.

In the mirror, I see my story. Like Jorge Luis Borges’s Book of Sand, it is without beginning or end, impossible, and terribly infinite. Perhaps there is some beauty there, too.

__________________________________

I grew up believing that there was a distinct line separating the body and the mind. The body was the physical — the domain of science, a subject I was never very interested in. I had nothing against science; I trusted it and was frequently amazed by it. In terms of interest, though . . . no.

I was more into the mind: the mental, emotional, intellectual. The mind was my passion — I loved learning and teaching, discussing and arguing, reading and writing. I wrote about my thoughts and emotions and made up characters with their own thoughts and emotions. In this realm, there could be pleasure or pain, ecstasy or anguish. If a feeling was confusing or a thought distressing, with my pen in hand, I believed I could make it better. The consequences of this were both comfort and power. I wrote what I thought I could never say. I wrote what I thought no one would know until they’d read what I’d written.

 Brandel-Mine (Legs With Words)

As I’ve grown older, though, I realize the errors of my thinking. The body and the mind are not separate. What goes on in one goes on in the other. Every thought I’ve ever had lives in my bloodstream and my brain, my memories in my muscles and my mind.

This concept might be stupidly obvious to others, but to me, it was an epiphany. This body was not just a thing I lugged around each day; it had meaning. Or rather, meanings — different parts meant different things in different contexts, like page-long entries in a dictionary, like feelings that feel good and also bad. I thought I’d been writing my life on paper in poetry, but I’d also been doing it on my skin and in my bones.

Of course, this means sometimes that I am weary. Depression makes a mind muddled and a body heavy. I can no longer pretend that one’s all right when the other one is clearly not. However, it also means that my bibliography is longer and more varied than I’d previously thought. It appears I’m quite prolific.

Because my body is a palimpsest. It is tattooed with others’ words as well as my own, and the layers are deep and permanent. There are lines in my fingerprint, they are lines of poetry. All that writing will tell you who I am.

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.

Guest Post: Chris Munde

The Winchester HouseI realized I wasn’t ready to write a poem about decorum when I couldn’t tell how an epigraph from the Budd Dwyer suicide video would play to the average person. In particular, I wanted to quote the press secretary’s plea for onlookers to “show a little decorum, please,” since it made me realize how strange the act of demanding/measuring civility is. That use of such a line might come off as disrespectful did occur to me, though, and I was forced to do some measuring myself.

With tastefulness just out of reach, I couldn’t plan any further until I eliminated all of the other weighted words that might muddy my understanding of the one. “Aesthetic” was out, since it brought too broad of a focus, and since I‘d lost Eco’s “On Ugliness” to a basement flood. The same went for “Ethics,” which should be a part of everything, and so should be the cedar dinner table, and not woodchips in the meal. “Taboo,” as a near-synonym for “bad taste,” might provide me with the dangerous shelter of circular reasoning. Gone too were excuses; I vowed not to namedrop or allude to Bataille in some attempt to blame my own lack of taste on a literary precedent.

I then thought of others’ approaches to decorum, and of the way I tended to process them, and turn them out in the cold in various states of dress. For instance, when processing a friend’s death, I had made a list of drug overdose scenes in films of all kinds. When I returned to it later, I considered how the scenes ranged from visceral bursts of close-up special effects to a single shot of a shoeless foot in a doorway. I found myself shopping the list for certain types of impacts, and was struck most by a scene from In a Glass Cage, in which the director instructed the child actor to behave like a fish out of water after his character had been injected with gasoline. This scene, I felt, defied good taste in an interesting way, as any apologetic attempt I might make to soften its imagery by adding context (“Don’t worry; it’s another child who administers the injection,” or “he does it to impress his adult captive, a paralyzed doctor”) only deepened the tastelessness. That I feel the need to apologize after describing this scene, which I did not create, says as much about decorum as does the scene itself.

Therefore, apology seems to be what holds decorum together. If I get caught mouthing a scream into a restroom mirror, I might apologize for doing it and the observer might apologize for seeing, even though he’s not done anything socially wrong. Some people even push apology into the realm of atonement, like Sarah Winchester, designer of the labyrinthine Winchester house. She required builders to continually add on to the house to appease the ghosts of those who were killed by Winchester firearms, until the house became a hodgepodge of doors to nowhere and staircases into solid ceiling. It’s what “I’m sorry for everyone else” might look like in concrete form.

Though this didn’t put me off decorum altogether, I was (and am now) more inclined to risk tastelessness if the alternative is a thousand doors to nowhere. I plan to continue to use the line from the suicide video, though probably not as an epigraph; I’d want to control the context, so that it worked to honor truth, instead of repulsing readers with irreverence. I could think of it as mapping the terrain: Identifying the staircases that always lead to a bloody nose, only using them when I need a bloody nose, stumbling down uncharted ones. I might practice my quiet scream in the restroom mirror (my late friend, of course, not there to excuse me), and see what dialogue comes in absence of an apology.

Contributor Update: Valerie Bandura

Hey everybody! We here at Superstition Review are excited to announce that our former interview advisor and poet extraordinaire Valerie Bandura has a new book out this month from Black Lawrence Press titled “Human Interest.” Valerie served Superstition Review as our Interview Advisor, aiding our interns in providing you, dear readers, with the insights and tidbits that you crave from all of your favorite writers. If you haven’t already, do yourself the kindness of familiarizing yourself with the Interview section of each issue of Superstition Review, starting with the most recent issue, found here. Once you’ve read all the brilliant conversations contained therein, go grab yourself one (or two, or seven) copies of “Human Interest,” available now, and found very easily by clicking right HERE.

Buy this book!

The new book from Valerie Bandura, titled “Human Interest,” out now from Black Lawrence Press.

Contributor Update: Meghan McClure and Michael Schmeltzer

Greetings, dear readers! We here at Superstition Review are pleased to provide a double dose of good news: two of our past contributors, Meghan McClure and Michael Schmeltzer, have collaborated on a new book coming this June from Black Lawrence Press, titled A Single Throat Opens. Schmeltzer’s work was featured in the Poetry sections of both our 6th and 10th issues, while McClure’s work was featured in the Poetry section of our 6th issue and the Nonfiction section of our 18th issue. Preorder the book here, and check out both of these fine writers’ work out in our Archives (links here, here, here, and here)! Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

Pre-order this book!

The cover art for “A Single Throat Opens,” by past contributors Meghan McClure and Michael Schmeltzer.

Contributor Update: Roy Guzman

Good afternoon, everybody! Today brings exciting developments from the field: past contributor Roy Guzman, featured in the Poetry section of our 18th issue, has been selected to have his poetry included in the brand new anthology from Tia Chucha Press, titled The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States. The anthology is scheduled for release this month, and was edited by Leticia Hernández Linares, Rubén Martínez, and Héctor Tobar, with a foreword by Juan José Dalton. Go pre-order this brilliant collection of work here, and do yourself a favor (if you haven’t already) and go read Guzman’s poem in our 18th issue here. Let us know what you think in the comments section below!

Pre-order now!

The cover for The Wandering Song, featuring the work of past contributor Roy Guzman.