Today we are pleased to feature artist Louise Fisher as our Authors Talk series contributor. In this podcast, Louise discusses the creation of her video performance “A Letter I Long and Dread to Close,” as well as her own artistic journey.
Louise begins by describing her childhood in rural Iowa, where, as she states, “the tallgrass prairie was my first art teacher.” Eventually, she declares, “my curiosity and ambition drove me… to find a community who could relate to my strange creative impulse.” In search of this creative community, she is currently pursuing her MFA in printmaking from Arizona State University, where she says that “my work is very tied to the experience of ‘place.'” Speaking on the concept of “place,” she states that, “I knew a desert metropolis was the complete opposite of my upbringing, so I wanted to challenge myself and see how my work would change.”
“A Letter I Long and Dread to Close” is, in Louise’s words, “a perfect example of…this concern with the past and the process of deterioration.” Inspired by a poem titled “Toward the Solstice,” by Adrienne Rich, the video was “informed by an interest in domestic history, and how our lived spaces can hold impressions of inhabitants.” It was filmed in a house that Louise’s mother “grew up playing in, standing next to the house that I grew up in,” and was a “site-specific response” to how “aspects of the home are often ignored” in historical narratives. In filming the video, Louise states that her first impulse was to “peel the wallpaper away and investigate what was there; to see how deep the time went, like an archaeological dig.”
You can watch Louise’s video, “A Letter I Long and Dread to Close,” in Issue 19 of Superstition Review.
Angry, that’s what a critic has declared my When The Next Big War Blows Down The Valley: Selected and New Poems. Rather than worry that under gender scrutiny, “anger” is the equivalent of “shrill,” I decided to investigate anger in my influences and to discover whether the term, whether accurate or not, should be avoided at all costs. Although C.K. Williams’s poems addressed war, poverty and climate change, he escaped the anger label entirely. His obituary likened him to Walt Whitman, “politically engaged and passionate” and “Throughout, the sense of moral urgency remained, but without the declamatory tone.” The headline for Adrienne Rich’s obituary ran: “Adrienne Rich, the Poet Beyond Anger.” She is deemed “one of the great poets of rage,” and all there is of anger is the mention that it’s the Old Norse term for “anguish.” Craig Morgan Teicher’s headline for an NPR review of Derek Walcott’s work is “60 Years Of Poems Mix Anger, Ambivalence And Authority,” but the quote in the piece uses “rage” instead of “anger:”
Ablaze with rage, I thought
Some slave is rotting in this manorial lake,
And still the coal of my compassion fought:
That Albion too, was once
A colony like ours, “a piece of the continent, a part of the main”
Walcott, “Ruins in a Great House”
Last month Karen Finley, the artist who brought down the NEA two decades ago, wrote: “Speaking out with passion is considered inappropriate; you can still see that 25 years later in the scrutiny of Hillary Clinton… You have a right to be angry. We need to have a place in our society where we can be expressing discomfort and conflict.”
The number one aesthetic rationale for avoiding anger is that it dates the work. Whatever you’re unhappy about will change and need a footnote in the Norton Anthology. Number two is that it will always alienate some of its audience and thereby make the work less universal, less classic, less worthy of attention. But Shelley’s “England in 1819,” a poem written two hundred years ago about inequity, is one that has endured. Consider its opening lines: “An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;/Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow/Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring.” I presume the poem has never been a favorite of monarchs, nor even of oligarchies, but for the 99% it’s still a Yes. Anger is one valid response to truth. “Truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry” is text-on-the-screen from “The Big Short,” the new movie about the 2008 housing bubble, a very angry film. As Paul Celan wrote: “Not-to-want-to-become-aware-of is the liar’s main business….”
I posit that making readers uncomfortable with anger is just as valid as causing the reader to become aroused with love poems. When Lola Ridge (1874-1941) was asked by the arch-conservative English poet Alice Hunt Bartlett what topics she felt were appropriate to poetry, she wrote: “Let anything that burns you come out whether it be propaganda or not… I write about something that I feel intensely. How can you help writing about something you feel intensely?” You can imagine Bartlett phrasing the question around the issue of Ridge’s social conscience, most visible in her first book about Jewish immigrants, The Ghetto and Other Poems, a book that didn’t bemoan the Jew’s situation, nor condemn them like Eliot and Pound, but celebrated their place in a new country. Here is Ridge’s imagist poem about the vast number of unemployed who struggled during a downturn at the beginning of the 20th century:
I love those spirits
That men stand off and point at,
Or shudder and hood up their souls—
Those ruined ones,
Where Liberty has lodged an hour
And passed like flame,
Bursting asunder the too small house.
With anger you only have to flex the muscle, not kayo the reader, allowing her to judge whether she is going to join you in your anger—the way you would with regard to any emotion expressed in a poem. That flexing is difficult, an art. When Czesaw Milosz published “Sarajevo,” a poem that wasn’t his best, he told his translator Robert Hass, “Sometimes it is better to be a little ashamed rather than silent.” The world is full of uncalled-for beauty and senseless tragedy and perfidy, and poets must try to express all of it. The Brooklyn Rail recently wrote: “Terese Svoboda is one of few contemporary American writers who possesses a global consciousness.” I don’t want to remain silent. Is that a problem for you?
Adrienne Rich, suffering from an excruciatingly painful and disabling disease, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, observed in her brief, haunting essay, “Voices from the air,” describing poetry’s peculiar relationship to suffering, “one property of poetic language [is] to engage with states that themselves would deprive us of language and reduce us to passive sufferers.” My opening sentence hesitates, interrupts itself, revises what I’ve just stated (or comments upon it), because I have previously had occasions to muse on poetry and suffering. Not long ago, an anthology entitled Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability included a brief essay about my revised relationship to Rich’s poetry upon contracting the disease from which she had suffered since childhood. I quoted her poetry and referred to poems and the essay I love, “Voices in the air,” which became, during my own most physically painful years, words that guided me away from a passivist, physical suffering that had silenced me and back to poetic language. I guess a simpler way of putting it would be to say that she has inspired me—that she was a life saver (in the sense of the life of the mind)—for most of my adult life!
If one wrote much on Rich when she was alive, one came to realize that she read and personally gave (or denied) permission to quote. To my relief, I was always granted permission, and it was clear that she remembered accounts of my own illness when we met a decade ago. I recall her smile as she came into the lobby, moving slowly, but holding herself with the dignified posture of pain. We sat next to each other by a fountain in the luxurious Scottsdale resort hotel where she was a featured reader and I was, of all accidents, her host at a local conference. We did not need many words to reflect awareness of the cognitive dissonance of the fancy resort. Rather worse for wear, our bodies not bathing-suit worthy, we shared the experience of remembering our bodies every single minute of our lives because of pain. We spoke of other things. I’m grateful for those moments of fellowship with this great poet and feminist activist. But it lulled me.
My last exchange with Rich was a fitting reminder of her exacting, poetic and ethical standards. The brief essay I wrote for Beauty Is a Verb profoundly irritated her. Although she gave her permission for me to quote her, she wrote the Permissions Editor at Norton (not me) that she wished “Ms. Hogue could find a less reductive way of articulating my poetry’s importance to her” than claiming the following:
I have been moved by poetry that conveys the essential. I live with, contemplate Adrienne Rich’s poems and essays about having rheumatoid arthritis (as it happens, the very disease I have). I never took in the details until I was myself living them. Rich reported news I had no way to understand, because it was about a body’s experience I did not share, and described the indescribable (pain). (BIAV 307)
“To my knowledge,” Rich wrote the Permissions Editor, “I have never written ‘about’ having RA.” I had been happy with this little essay until I received Rich’s cautionary email warning me that my expression was reducing her poetry to her illness. When I went back to the essay, to my horror, all the “abouts” leapt out at me like so many pointing fingers! Thus were Rich’s final words directed to me, some months before she died of the complications of RA. After the ashamed shock receded, I acknowledged her great-hearted, hard-won, and rigorous empathy. To honor her, I must re-vision (in Rich’s well-known definition: to see with new eyes) my own engagement not only with her language, but also with my own.
And I wanted to share my musings on this experience, because it is in the spirit of poetry’s verbal precision and conscious attentiveness that we all may participate more care-fully in helping to carry on her legacy, to convey some part of the Rich heritage of all she gave us.
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