Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas



December 2007

"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

Dear Reader,

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 mind.

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 felt important:

nuclear winter begins
carburetor queen
peppered-filled suitcase
fork on the windowsill
snow-filled closet
stethoscope torture
farmed-out velvet
shallow hairline helmet
barbed wire
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 with words.

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.

Nuclear Winter

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: