Photo Credit: Jennie
"In writing workshops, I have often told my
students, 'You must be willing to write the worst
junk in America. Go for the jugular. If anything scary
comes up, follow it; that's where the energy is.'"
Natalie Goldberg, Living Color:
A Writer Paints Her World, Bantam Books.
Painting a Poem
Since Michael Kasper's September 27 lecture on artist's books
at the Mead Art Museum, I have been on fire with energy and ideas.
As I write this, I can see at the first fifteen copies of Reciprocity:
An Artist's Book on my dining room table. A week ago, I wondered
if I would ever be able to do it. Inspiration came when I was
about to give up (November's Judy's Journal).
While the Reciprocity project has made my life intense,
I have learned that it's important to maintain some balance in
my life. So, last Sunday, I attended a two hour poetry workshop
here in Worcester, Massachusetts. It was one of a series organized
by Heather J. Macpherson, editor of Ballard Street Poetry Journal.
The workshop's title was "Write Against Yourself."
The facilitator, Bob Hoeppner, began by discussing techniques
and strategies that might help turn a poem on its ear. Once we
were let loose into our own writing, something strange and wonderful
happened. I found myself painting a poem.
Here's how it happened. Because of what someone had written about
the Ed Sullivan Show, the group discussed that period of American
history. I remembered the televised Sunday institution as a kaleidoscope
of cultural markers. Typically, viewers would see jugglers, pop
singers and then the ballet. The segments were short, and if you
didn't like who was on at the moment, something completely different
would be waiting in the wings. The show (or "really big shoe"
as Sullivan would say) was a strange conglomeration of anything
classified as "entertainment."
I also remembered that time as being the Age of Anxiety, followed
by the Cold War. My early decades were colored by the threat of
nuclear war. The phrase "nuclear winter" came into my
When we were on our own writing, I wrote that phrase on my paper.
Then, as I would begin a painting, I decided to fill the center
of the page with phrases, which were unrelated, surreal and somehow
nuclear winter begins
fork on the windowsill
shallow hairline helmet
tart of battles
horses, tanks, bombers
Clearly, war was on my mind. The way the phrases appeared on
my page felt very much like the colors I first put my canvas:
they feel big, bold and full of how I am feeling at the moment.
Whatever shapes the colors might become later did not matter.
I felt that same freedom having written these phrases on my page.
Then I decided to jab words onto either side of the phrases,
without thinking. Instead of using a brush, rag or palette knife
to spawn shapes over the canvas, I was using a pen and painting
nuclear winter begins
the carburetor queen laughs
uses her pepper-filled briefcase
to hammer a fork into the windowsill, red gushes
from beneath a snow-filled closet door
submerged, she yields to stethoscope torture
farmed-out velvet graveyard
dons a shallow hairline helmet, primps
then adjusts her barbed-wire eyelashes
tart, sweet tart of battles, breath of
poisoned horses, broken tanks, stealthy bomber
Next I moved back into the poem to see if I could decipher details,
tease out shapes/words, and decide if there was enough on the
page to continue. The draft grew and changed shape. A phrase I
loved (carburetor queen) disappeared when I realized that she
was Minerva, Roman goddess of war.
Minerva will toss
her briefcase high
watch it explode.
Red will gush from under the snow
filled closet door.
She will dispense stethoscope
horrors, birdsong will cease
in farmed-out velvet graveyards.
Minerva, don your shallow helmet,
fix your barbed-wire eyelashes.
Tart, bitter in battle, your breath reeks
of poisoned horses, broken tanks, bomber caskets.
Shimmer, divide, quake.
This poem pushed me to write about war in a way I have not tried
before. In fact, its drafts, in their mimicking of my painting
process, have introduced me to another way of approaching the
page. All because of Ed Sullivan.
Next month, I will take a look back at my creative leaps, flights
and tumbles in 2007. Contact me if you would like to talk art
and/or poetry: firstname.lastname@example.org.