30 September 2010

Williams as Medieval Myth-Maker

I've just have a paper accepted for a panel entitled "Medievalist Fantasies of Christendom" at the 46th International Congress on Medieval Studies. Here's the abstract.

Double Affirmation:
Medieval Chronology, Geography, and Devotion
in the Arthuriad of Charles Williams


In his masterpiece, an unfinished cycle of Arthurian poems, Charles Williams developed a totalizing mythology in which he fictionalized the Medieval—historically, geographically, and devotionally—in order to defend, embody, and recommend his peculiar Christianity. Under an Anglo-Catholic exterior, Williams fostered mystical asceticism: the result of destabilizing asceticism vs. hedonism. His reenactment of this mythopoetic Medievalism led not to synthesis, but to syncretism.

Williams’s first Medieval fictionalization is historical: he employs anachronisms and chronological conflation, juxtaposing events and cultural references from a millennium of European history and aligning each with his doctrinal system. Logres is God’s kingdom on earth; Byzantium signifies divine order; Islam represents a repudiation of Incarnation; and chivalry is metonym for the Way of Romantic Love.

Secondly, Williams mythologies the Medieval as apologetic via topography. Following the Biblical metaphor of the body of Christ, Blake’s symbolism, and the occult tradition he learned as a Rosicrucian initiate, he embodied theology in the Medieval landscape. He superimposed the figure of a woman over a map of Europe, then described each country in terms of an anatomical- ecclesiastical function.

Finally, Williams worked to show the validity of two Scholastic approaches to spirituality: the kataphatic and apophatic paths. His position is controversial, since his Affirmative Way involves renouncing love. This attempt to balance via negativa and via positiva resulted in syncretism, rather than harmonious Christianity. Specifically, it led Williams into the study of magic, sexual rituals with female devotees, and (perhaps) marital celibacy. While chastity, romance, and even theurgy have precedents as devotional practice, mixing them in modern life and marriage led Williams to practical misapplication—but also to creation of a landmark work of twentieth century poetry.

28 September 2010

Interview with Barbara Crooker, poet

This is the twenty-seventh interview in the “Where are we now?” series. Please take a look at the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to see if you have missed any interviews, take a look at my conversations with those guests of most interest to you, leave some comments, or suggest future interviewees. Enjoy, leave your comments at the end of this interview, and share this series with your friends!

Interview with poet Barbara Crooker
at her home in Fogelsville, PA
2 August 2010
and via email

IA: Let’s start by talking about your writing. You can tell my readers what you’ve done, a little bit about your work. If my count is correct, you have ten chapbooks and three full-length books; is that correct?

BC: Actually twelve chapbooks. Twelve chapbooks and three full-length books.

Barbara’s books are listed on her website, here

I’m one of the people that took a long time and a very arduous journey to get a first full-length book. I spent fifteen years entering contests, being a finalist, being a top-ten. It’s like the game of Chutes-and-Ladders; you get that close to the top and if you don’t win, you go all the way down to the bottom again. And you have to do it again. I probably sent out my manuscript fifteen times each year, and I sent out queries to anybody that I thought was reading. So I was getting to the point where I thought it was going to be “posthumous.” Then I was overjoyed to learn that I won that Word Press First Book Award. It turned out to be the last Word Press First Book Award. They’re under the umbrella of WordTech Communications, and they’ve gone to simply having open reading periods and no more contests. But once I got my toe in the water that way, then my second book came out three years later, and now my third book two years after that. So that’s three books out in five years, which is a lot, because of what a writer has to do in order to get a book noticed.

IA: You have a big job to do with “self-promotion,” in addition to the writing. But you have a huge output of writing, as well. Do you work on a rigid routine every day?

BC: Well, I only seem to have a huge output because I’ve been writing for a long time, probably thirty-five, forty years. And although I’ve published in well over two thousand publications, some of these are the same poems which were published first in a magazine, then in an anthology, then in one of my books, and maybe later on a website. So poems can be recycled! I think the hard work of being a writer is the writing itself. That’s the most important work. The rest of it is just busy work. But back to the question about getting the work out there. Even writers at the highest level have to do their own promotion, because presses don’t have publicity budgets any more. So some of the things that we have to do are: send out email notices, provide addresses for mail order notices, try to do readings, try to get reviewed, which is also becoming more and more difficult. One of the things I try to do is to review other people’s books, because I know how hard it is to get books of poetry noticed.

IA: So you’ve got all this other work: writing reviews, doing readings, sending out emails….

BC: Writing essays…. I feel that with prose projects, I just finish seem to finish one piece thinking, OK, now I can get back to my own work, and then somebody asks me to do something else! But there seems to be a hunger for reviews and essays, whereas sometimes one of the things that stops me from writing (and I know that this also stops some of my friends) is that I have about a hundred unpublished poems trying to find a home. Do I need to add to my store of unpublished work? But that's only a slight impediment. We’re flooded with poetry, actually. With the proliferation of MFA programs, there are so many writers being churned out. Some of them are excellent writers, as well. It's an exciting time in American writing.

IA: Yes, it is! But this is a very hard time economically, for poetry: publishers don’t want poetry unless it’s someone who’s already very established and a big name who’s going to sell, which is a very small handful of poets, or unless you’re going to do all the work, all the publicity yourself. But you’ve been very successful, as a poet. I don’t know about economically, but your poetry has appeared in so many various important places. You’ve won many prizes, you’ve been read on Writer’s Almanac many times: What do you think it is about your poetry that has worked for people?

BC: That’s an interesting question. I would go back and say that “successful poet” is really an oxymoron in this country. And it’s interesting, too, to think about "what is success?" It used to be gauged by getting into a certain magazines or winning certain prizes. I had a writing friend who’s no longer with us who had wonderful success, but he was never nominated for a Pulitzer, so he always felt like a failure. We set up these little gates for ourselves to try to jump over. I don’t think there’s any morning when I wake up and say, “I’m a successful writer!” Some days I'm tough about dealing with rejection, some days I'm not. Yet everyone gets rejected. I have a friend who knew John Updike, and he still got rejected, even by The New Yorker.

So, what appeals to readers about my work? That’s a tough question, it really is. One of my friends was just interviewed in a blog, and she said, “To answer that question, I think you'd have to ask somebody who writes criticism, not me.” It may be because I’m accessible, but this is a double-edged sword, because for every reader who comes to you because you are accessible, you have a critic who wants to sneer at you for the same reason. My ideal reader is my former next-door neighbor, who didn’t go to college, but who is an avid and eclectic reader. I’m not looking for someone who, say, spends a lot of time watching reality shows on TV; that person isn't going to turn to poetry. But I am looking for somebody who loves good literature and whose life is enriched by reading.

IA: Let’s discuss some of the topics that you tend to write about, that tend to occur in your poetry quite frequently. You write nature poetry, you write poetry in which you examine everyday occurrences or objects or situations, you write poetry about your family. You also have a recurring theme in your work which is quite admirable, which is quite a challenge: which is life-long love. Love that lasts through a marriage. And it’s notoriously difficult to write about married love. It’s much easier to write about unrequited love, or a quick passing passion. Do want to talk about those, or are there other topics that occur?

BC: Definitely those. You've struck a chord with the love in a long-term relationship theme. Something that pleases me is that I have some male gay friends who also respond to the same things that I’m writing about in my relationship. I think that’s great. In contemporary writing, there are a whole lot of break-up poems, unrequited love poems, good love gone bad poems. But there isn’t a lot written about the struggles (and joys) in a love that lasts, so it’s sort of a niche I fell into.

Some of my other themes include my mother’s long decline. We brought her down here to live, so I was her caregiver for her last eight years. I have a section about this in my new book, More, and then I deal with her death and grieving in the manuscript I’m currently working on. It was a profound experience, a door we all go through in this life. Only in poetry can you really examine this dualism, this feeling doubly about things. I wish she was still here with us, while at the same time, I can't wish her back in that body with those lungs that didn’t work. These two desires can exist in a poem, but in real life, they can’t. And, of course, in real life we don’t get to choose. I have a friend who has written a long series of poems in which she resurrects and reconstructs a difficult relationship with her mother, rewriting their personal history. Every woman who is born is a daughter, and so this is a fascinating relationship, which is, in some cases toxic, in others, life-affirming, with many, many shades in between.

Other things I write about: the dynamics of a family where there is a profoundly disabled member, my son, age twenty-six, who has autism. Some of my earlier poems in chapbooks were more about the day-to-day experiences; my later poems are quieter, showing how we go on. We live in a country that has few if any social services any more. Here is a person who is profoundly disabled, and yet we’re being told by our social worker that not only will he never get into a group home, but that after we’re gone, the best that she can do is maybe get him into a homeless shelter. We lost so much ground during the Bush years, as social services money went to fund the war in Iraq and was never returned. The country is running out of money, the states are running out of money. We’ve seen terrible cuts to education which will have long-term repercussions. But the fact is that there are at least half a million disabled children whose parents, like us, are aging, and there’s nothing being funded. There’s a big elephant sitting in the room, folks. Private pay for group homes is about the same as it is for Assisted Living, but for many more years. So this weighs on my mind, always. Several poems about this are in my second book, Line Dance. Many writers come back to the same topics; the difficult trick is not to keep writing the same poem.

Another area is my love of the visual arts. I have an entire section of Ekphrastic work in More. I was an art history minor as an undergraduate, so this is the perfect merger of my two loves, poetry and art. I can give myself permission to go off to a museum, thinking it might lead to new poems. This part of my life has also been fueled by an artists’ colony, The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (the VCCA), starting in 1990. When you go to a colony, you're in residence with not only writers, but painters, sculptors, musicians; all the arts are represented. At night when there are presentations, it’s a rich cross-fertilization, a meeting place of all the arts. I’m happy to report that I got in again, so I’ll go back there in November. That’s where I met the two women who did the cover art on my last two books. Being able to talk with, say, a painter, listening to her talk about her struggle with new media and its frustrations, spills over into the challenges of writing, and is enormously helpful.

I also write about contemporary events, although again, there’s that double-edged sword. I have a poem about the oil spill, but a thousand other writers have a poem about this, too, and it's going to get dated. So this might be a poem that doesn't make it into a book. But being concerned about the world, the environment, the ever-presence of war, these are things that engage me. At the same time, they’re only the way in, into writing a poem. They’re never the poem itself. Even when I use autobiographical material, it’s not exactly me or my family, because in the act of creation, your material changes even while you're using it.

IA: Now, another topic that comes up often is, I think you called it a minute ago: “The edge of the spiritual.” The spiritual edges its way in, or you’re edging your way into the spiritual in your work.

BC: Yes, yes. Absolutely. My first book, Radiance, for me is a spiritual/religious book, but without mentioning any specific theology or tradition. I was aware of and was purposeful in doing that. You and I have both read widely in contemporary spiritual journals. The poems that I love are almost never the ones that have direct Biblical references. I want to do something a little bit different. Contemporary religious poems that don’t appeal to me are ones that simply retell familiar stories using slightly different words. Nothing new happens. It's the same sort of thing that bothers me in a sermon. I like work that come at things from a different angle. I've been writing a blurb for Tania Runyan’s first book, and I like the way she takes an unusual slant, for example, the point of view of an angel in the corner. I like a different way of looking at something familiar. And although I have work in many Christian publications, I think of myself as a sort of Zen Lutheran. I'll be reading at the National Lutheran Writers’ Conference in Iowa this October, but I feel like of my sensibility is sometimes more informed by Eastern writers, such as the writing of Thích Nhât Hạnh, the Vietnamese monk, some of the early Japanese poetry (Basho), Rumi, et al. I feel like a filter-feeder, such as a sponge or an anemone, as I read widely and I try to be open to experience. I try and write without preconceived notions, following Robert Frost's dictum: “If you know where a poem is going, start there.” So when I’m writing, I try to let it be a journey, see where it takes me.

IA: I’d like to talk technique for a moment. Let’s discuss, as specifically as we can, techniques that you use. You can describe these for our readers in layman’s terms, but also however technically you want to get. So you tend to write free verse. But what informs the structures of your poems? For instance, how do you know when to break a line?

BC: I’d say probably ninety to ninety-five percent of my poetry is free verse, but I am interested in formal poetry as well. I’ve been part of the West Chester Conference on Formal Poetry for the past five or six years, and have had work in Mezzo Cammin. So I find it instructive to work in form from time to time. Those kinds of poems take me much longer to bring to completion, but there's a certain shimmer that formal poems send out that influences the free verse work I’m also working on.

I do tend to work simultaneously. Right now, in my folder I’ve got older poems that I’m revising for the next manuscript, plus newer poems in various stages, ranging from just a couple of words, to ones in the throes of revision. I like to work on one poem, put it away, work on another one, ditto, never removing something from that working-on folder until I feel it's finished. (And is a poem ever finished, or merely abandoned, as Paul Valery said?) I know I’ve got at least two poems right now in two different versions, and boy, I just can’t decide. But you know, we’ve got nothing but time. So I like to wait until something surfaces to tell me which is version is right, because intellectually the argument could go either way. I usually start with an image, or with something that nags at me. I thought that I had pretty much written everything I could about my son, but in the past month or so, there was a phrase that kept repeating itself in my head, and I knew I had to finish the poem that the phrase wanted to be part of.

Whenever I am given something, I want to say thank you. Some writers call it "the Muse," others the Holy Spirit, but what ever you name you give it, something is there, saying “This needs to come into being.” And my job is to catch it, to jot down on whatever paper is close at hand, all those raw beginnings. Sometimes it’s the worst-looking prose you've ever seen. Once I start writing, I try and let that pony run. It might be page after page after page of junk, but I try to be patient until something that’s starting to sound like a poem comes through. If it’s a musical line or phrase, I’ll try to go back and use that as a template, try and make everything else as good as that one bit. It’s kind of sculptural: there’s this big mess, and I chip away at all that isn't a poem— There's an old anecdote that goes, the way you create Michelangelo’s David is that you chisel off everything that isn’t David. . .

How do I decide when the lines break? Well, I use a lot of different things. Because I have sometimes work formally, I think I hear those iambs trotting in the back of my mind. What I’m most drawn to, though, is breath units. I try to be organic and see where the natural pauses come. I like to use enjambment, too. But then I’m also visual. I start writing on yellow paper, so there’s a real shift once I move to the computer. I dislike dangling lines, lines that aren’t beautiful visually, while on the other hand I try to fight against too much shapeliness, which can be boring. Then there’s the use of white space. Do I want this to be a poem that’s compact, hard, and solid, in little square stanzas? Or I want this to be a poem that stretches and dances; if so, I might break it into two or three line stanzas, so there's more white space and breathing room. Again, I rely to a great degree on intuition and listening to what the poem is telling me about where it wants to go, how it wants to look on the page, what form it would like to take.

Then I do a lot of revision. That’s one of the things I find difficult in talking to beginning writers, particularly high school ones. I do a workshop at DeSales University once a year for high school students. This festival has been going on about twenty-six years, and it gives a four-year college scholarship to the winning poem; one year the winning poem was only four lines long. But sometimes, when we talk about process, the kids will say, "This came to me, I wrote it down, that's it." If I try to talk about revision, they say, “Oh, but then that won’t be the way I heard it." Or "if I show it to a workshop and other people give me input, then it’ll be their poem and not my poem.” This is a very difficult hurdle to get them over.

I workshop myself; I have two that are in-person, one with two other women, one with a man, plus I have some folks online I exchange work with. Sometimes I get decent editorial advice from editors, but usually, they're overwhelmed, so all that comes back is "accept or reject." You don’t often get, “We’re interested in this poem but think the ending could be stronger,” which would be useful.

I find that most of my poems end up in the twenty-five to fifty revisions area. I’m still old-fashioned enough that I print them all out. That's one thing I’ve learned from observing painters, that sometimes when they’ve built up to be a layer too much, they can’t go back. But if we’ve overwritten or taken something that was a lot better, say, in the fifteenth version, we can return to the earlier version. I often go back when I have things I’m struggling with, to find that the answers are already there, but I couldn't see them at the time. Again, we’ve got nothing but time. I think we all need time and distance to be able to look at our own work critically. I try not to think I wrote a particular poem; rather, I try to look at it as a piece of writing and ask how it can be improved.

IA: Pretend you’re workshopping someone else’s piece?

BC: Sure. It’s so interesting; in one workshop it seems like we’re constantly saying about the other person’s piece what needs to be fixed in our own. That’s the old mote-in-your-eye, log-in-somebody-else’s thing. And while we're using Biblical references, writing reviews for other people has ended up exemplifying the adage that you can throw your bread on the water and you won’t get soggy crusts. Instead, it engenders good will and the gratitude of other writers, which is very satisfying.

IA: So, because of your reviewing and your wide reading, and also you write a lot of back-of-the-book blurbs as well [Barbara very kindly wrote one for my chapbook], you really know a lot of other contemporary poets working right now. So do you think that, with the exception of love in a long-term relationship, do you think that a lot of your techniques and topics are typical of other poets right now?

BC: I don’t think my work is different than anyone else’s in terms of technique. I’m always learning. People are coming up with wonderful invented forms. So if I read something new, I might say, “Ah, I’d like to try that!” Or I might like to try and figure out the way someone gets from here to there in a poem. A writer whose work I’m admiring a great deal is Barbara Hamby, who does poems that are like jazz rifts. The poem I read today was on barbeque, souls, and Hell. And it was so inventive, the way she wandered throughout the poem, but came back home at the end. I'm in awe. Maybe I'll try and do something like this, some time.

IA: Do you identify yourself with a particular type of poetry, a particular school or movement or group?

BC: Probably not. I'm not very interested in schools, but I’d consider myself a contemporary woman writer. Which brings up something interesting: I'd mentioned the Westchester conference, which is called “Form and Narrative.” In the past two years, I've been on a symposium that has undertaken a large project called The Women Poets Timeline, which plans to identify and have a paper written on every woman poet of all time and from all countries. One of the men at the conference said to the woman in charge of the Timeline project, “Well, what are you going to do next, when this is done?” She said, “This is not going to get done in my lifetime.” He was clearly thinking, “Well, there’s only a handful of women writers, so there’s not much to write about,” but he was wrong, and this project will showcase the rich and varied world of women’s writing. It's an exciting time to be a woman writer and yet, it’s curious, because some women writers in the past have not wanted to be identified this way. The woman who was writing about May Swenson had trouble with her estate, as Swenson didn’t want to be identified with “women writers,” but wanted to be considered “just a writer,” like the men. But I have a friend who was making up his own curriculum up for contemporary poetry next semester who asked me where he could find women writers, as he didn't find many represented in the books he was using, and I sent him to the Timeline to see the papers that were already up there to use in planning his course. I’m proud to have had a small part in this.

IA: So: you identify with contemporary women writers.

BC: Sure. And contemporary spiritual writers. Contemporary nature writers. Writers on disability. I was on a panel on this topic at AWP in Denver. That’s a field we’re not done with yet, either.

IA: And do you feel it’s a very new field? Not the subject matter, but more self-conscious?

BC: I think it’s a new in being treated as an academic subject, or as something to have anthologies created around. In some ways, we’re the last bastion of self-identified communities that still experience a great deal of prejudice. For example, people now realize that jokes with an ethnic reference are in bad taste, as are jokes that sneer at someone else's religion. But the “R-word” is still being thrown around; finally, thankfully, it's starting to be banned in schools.

IA: I heard a man speaking on NPR, saying that he’s trying to get the FCC are whoever to ban it in media usage. And also discussion about redefining the quote-unquote “normal,” because, statistically speaking, the majority of people have some sort of disability.

BC: Or sometimes we’ll use the term (this is not original to me), “temporarily abled.” Because everyone is just one unclicked seatbelt away from needing the ADA. We take our bodies that work for granted….

IA: This ties into what’s sort of the last question I like to ask people, but it’s such a big question that it can generate half a dozen sub-questions! I’ve been looking around a little bit at “movements”; I say that in quotation marks because movements are either artificially self-defined or they’re defined later in retrospect. But anyway! Literary theorists are saying that we’ve left Postmodernism behind and that we’re in the Posthuman phase. And actually disability studies is concerned a sub-set of Posthuman studies, because they’re looking at what does it mean to be human, to be human amongst other species, to be human with all of our great variety, including variety of abilities. So I think what you’re writing, even though it’s autobiographical material, it’s also very cutting-edge as far as the way people are thinking about literature and the human.

BC: That’s really interesting. There's a thread that went through the panel about the nature of what is “normal,” the need to put normal in quotation marks, the need to encompass whole range of human experience. I'm not especially interested in poetic theory, but something that does engage me is deep ecology, the wordless communication we have with non-human species, and the way this extends to communication with my largely non-verbal child.

IA: Another part of this question about movements that I’m interested in is that I’ve been asking some people: What do you think about the “Eastward” orientation of economics, of Christianity, of manufacturing? You mentioned at the beginning of our discussion today that you have a lot of Eastern influences. Is that just a taste of yours, or have you been intentional, that you say: “I see where civilization is going, so I’m going to jump on board”?

BC: Another interesting question. I don’t think I do anything intentionally. My life is busy and spread about in so many different compartments. In the large part of my writing life, I was raising three children plus we took in three young adults (not at the same time; we weren't doing foster care, they just happened to need homes and ended up living with us.) There was a great deal of driving involved. Hand-held recording devices would have been helpful, but I'm not much of a techie, so there I was, scribbling on little pieces of paper while driving, using a stick shift. (Okay, I'm still doing this.) And grabbing writing time as I could.

The whole idea of “writing mothers” is one that I connect with. Eavan Boland is my great hero in this. She was the first writer I read who lived in suburbia, raised a family, and wrote, “When my children were little, sometimes I only wrote during naptime. Some days I only wrote a sentence. Some days I only wrote a word.” She gave me permission to write, to say that my life was just as valid as my contemporaries, men who had wives who took care of things at home and department secretaries who took care of things at work. Those of us outside of academia are in a very odd parallel universe, especially those of us without MFAs, without that kind of connectedness. We don’t have people saying, “Oh, I know so-and-so; she studied with me, she'll look at your manuscript” or “My best friend from undergraduate school was your mentor, so I’ll publish your work.”

But honestly, I don’t have the time to be intentional. So I believe a lot in serendipity and chance. Someone might say, “I just read this book and it’s really fabulous” and so I’ll read it. Maybe it's a great book but it doesn’t open any doors, but maybe, sometimes, it does. That’s the wonder of the internet; so much material crosses your virtual desk, and it’s often people whose work I might not read, because as we talked about earlier in the interview, there's this wealth of wonderful writers. You just can’t read everything. And this point in my life, I’ve got a house full of books, but am running out of room. I'd love to find a college that might be interested in a donation, but instead I’m hearing, “Books? We don’t want any more books.” We've moved into The Kindle Age, where in July 2010, more books sold on Amazon as Kindle files than as actual books.

IA: For the first time?

BC: Yes, it just made that transition. And while I think it’s okay to read poetry online occasionally, the idea of substituting reading on a Kindle for reading in a book is not appealing. For one thing, poetry books are generally beautiful books, with nice covers and good paper. Poetry is something you want to read more than once. But the Kindle World's an ephemeral one, where you read and then delete. I'm going to guess that poetry will be making some sort of transition (on the publishing level, not on the writer’s level) to the Kindle, and it will be interesting to see what happens next. Will books come out in two versions? Will that increase our readership, and will that be a good thing, or will that totally undercut physical books? Stay tuned. . . .

IA: And then how do you collaborate with a painter and have a book with a lovely cover, or a book that involves visual art. I interviewed another poet, Heather Thomas, who produced a chapbook in collaboration with a fiber artist. It didn’t go just one way; it wasn’t just that she wrote a poem and then the fiber artist made a piece; sometimes it went the other way, sometimes it was in conjunction. So they produced this beautiful book that you could not experience it any other way. The book is funny dimensions, to make it fit the fiber pieces, so how will you do something like that on a Kindle?

BC: On the other hand, what if we end up in the post-electric age? What if the power grids fails? What if all of these things suddenly go poof?

IA: But then on the positive hand, it produces other genres that were not possible on paper. You can have books that are somewhat live, that the reader has some kind of interaction in the order in which they go through it…

BC: Very true. And thinking about Ekphrastic work again, because of the cost of reproducing paintings, books rarely have poems and paintings together. But I’ve been on a number of websites where both the art and the poem about the art share the same page. This is a great use of electronic media.

IA: Or you could do Ekphrasis about music; you have the poem on the screen while you’re listening to the music; watching a dancer, or something like that.

You can also have things can happen that couldn’t happen geographically. I've had poems appear all over the world in places that I’ll never get to see in person. So there’s a lot that’s enormously exciting, and there’s a lot that we just don’t know about. For example, there's Facebook--remember when MySpace was huge? And now it's not visited very much. So we can't always see the future. But it’s a great time to be alive and to be writing. Sometimes people ask, "Do you love writing?" "Um, it's hard, work" is usually my answer, “But I love having written.” Part of doing book promotion means that you go on the road, giving readings. I think I did eighty-five readings from my first book. So you have to love those poems in order to be able to read them many times and not put yourself to sleep. I’m getting much pleasure in reading poems from More right now. I want my poems to live off the page and be alive for my readers. That’s my wish in writing.

25 September 2010

Ekphrasis report #7

We had only one official meeting in the summer. It was held at Higgins’ Croft (my house). There were six people present, including myself. We began the evening with a discussion about how Ekphrasis needs to change, if at all. You see, I’ve been going through a pretty serious and amazing internal change regarding my approach to the-arts-and-faith. In a nutshell, I have been convicted about my selfishness and smallness. First, I realized that I have been pursuing things like Ekphrasis, my interview series, and attempts to promote arts in my church simply and because I like art and want more of it—and because I want other people to like the arts so they like me and appreciate what I do. Bad idea. Second, I realized that in spite of many, many great recommendations (mostly by Rosie) of books to read on the subject, I was pursuing my concept of the-arts-and-faith all alone. I wasn’t read books on it. I wasn’t asking other people what they thought of it (until the interview series started). I have been pretending I’m the only person who knows anything about how Christians should approach the arts.

And it turns out I’m just about the only person who doesn’t know anything.

So I have changed my ways, started praying like crazy, talking and listening to anybody who will discuss this, and reading one book after another on the subject. Stay tuned for little reviews/recommendations/responses to these works. So far I’ve read David Taylor’s For the Beauty of the Church, Jeffery Overstreet’s Through a Screen Darkly, and part of Makoto Fujimura’s Refractions. I learned an awful lot from each one. Next in the pile is one of Jeremy Begbie’s books. Then I’ll move on to works by Wendell Berry, Andy Crouch, Frank Burch Brown, William Dyrness, and others. I’m planning to attend Redeemer Presbyterian’s InterArts fellowship in October. Basically, it’s time for me to shut up and listen to what all these wise Christians have to say about their encounters with the arts.

All that said, we decided (at this meeting and in a private one I held with one Ekphrasian) that Ekphrasis doesn’t need to change a whole lot at this point. We will begin meetings with prayer from now on, just to help direct and focus. We will meet more regularly. But we don’t want the group to grow much; we like it small, because that allows for longer and more detailed critiques. We don’t want it to become any more explicitly theological, because part of our purpose is to write works that engage with our faith in subtle, realistic, integrated ways. There was a film festival host who made up a series of rules for Christian filmmakers who wanted their work shown at his festival: “Refrain from the use of popular religious symbols, including the cross. No church scenes. No conclusions that involve a conversion to Christianity. No Scripture verses. No music with lyrics. No End Times scenarios. Show; don’t tell” (from Overstreet’s Through a Screen Darkly, p. 328). Adapted to each of our chosen media, I think this might be a good set of rules for Ekphrasians. Set ourselves the challenge of saying what we want to say by means of the art; not twisting the art to propagandize a clichéd version of the message. Even more: just make art and don’t worry about what it says. If it is excellent, that is enough.

So then. After the introductory discussion, we got into the workshopping session. JA went first. As usual, he offered us a finely crafted poem. It was a trope on the old writer’s block theme, understated, lean, and keenly observant. We all loved it—as we always do his work. He left the next morning for the Glen Workshop; J, maybe you can write a little report on the Glen and I can post it here??

Then MD shared the first chapter of a biography she’s writing about her neighbor. This neighbor grew up under Soviet oppression and has an exciting, tragic, memorable life story. M is doing a fantastic job of turning her tale into semi-fictionalized narrative, replete with imaginative descriptions of settings and conversations. She’s really bringing it to life. It’s designed for about a middle-school audience, and M has a gift of teaching history through the medium of compelling story-telling.

Then I shared Act III of my play-in-progress. We took parts and read it around the room. I love doing this; I love hearing it in different voices. I hope to get a full reading sometime when it’s done. This method is hard for workshopping, because nobody there had read Acts I and II except J (and he had to leave before my reading, in order to get home and get ready for the Glen), so Act III out of context was fairly random.

SB and TmcC were also present, but had just finished intensive summer sessions at their colleges and so hadn’t any creative work to share. However, their contributions to the discussion were extremely insightful and valuable. I look forward to our next session!

20 September 2010

Interview with Noemia Marinho, artist

This is the twenty-sixth interview in the “Where are we now?” project. That means we are now half way through the one-year series! This would be a great time for you to go back to the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to see if you have missed any interviews, take a look at my conversations with those guests of most interest to you, leave some comments, or suggest future interviewees. At this stage, I am looking for people who are well established in their fields; articulate thinkers whose names are widely recognized. I’m especially interested in creative workers in film, dance, and architecture. So please enjoy, leave your comments at the end of this interview, send me some names, and share this series with your friends!

Interview with Noemia Marinho
at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Rye, NY
25 July 2010

Here is Noemia’s brief biography.

IA: Why don’t you tell us about your work? You do painting, you do installation type of work, you do multi-media?

NM: I do many things because what interests me is things that are being discharged, thrown away, as a matter of fact. So, I’ll give some examples so you can understand. For example, we had glasses, and then eventually they got broken, so I would collect those glasses. Because I see them as so transparent and shiney; I almost see them as material. If you think it’s a raw material, you would say, OK, let’s recycle it, because then that material can be transformed into another glass. But I like to keep the idea that this glass served many people, as a vessel to drink water, juices, or whatever. I like the idea of whatever this thing was before. So I was interested in these kinds of things, but not really in a destructive way like recycling.

For instance, I’m doing work with plastic. I’m using plastic, like food containers. Usually they are transparent. What I do is I put on water and approach to fire, but not to burn it, but just to heat. And it changes the shape of it. And I kind of mold it between the heat and water and I’m making sculptures. And this changes what it was, but not totally. Because sometimes it sticks, a few things of the old object stays there so you kind of recognize it. But the result is very beautiful, I think. Many of the things I do are very beautiful, in a way (let me explain); because their beauty is so complex. But I think beauty is whatever is honest in truth. This is what is beautiful. It doesn’t need to be pleasing to the eye, to be beautiful. But many of my things are pleasing to the eye.

Another work that I’m actually working on: I was walking in my neighborhood and there was this car accident. The cars were not there, but you could see by the glass on the ground. A lot of glass. So I went home, got a dustpan and brush, and got those glasses. I took it home, washed it, and I’m doing one piece. Because the glass broken is beautiful. Just look at it! It is beautiful. Now, I cleaned it, and I’m gluing it on, not on a canvas, but on another material, fabric. So, it looks good. To me it looks like maybe stars in the night or things like that. But then I add to it. When I think about the circumstances, you know, of the accident: was it death, or not, or hurt? So I’m going to write the title an explanation of where I got the glass, so when you see the piece, you see where I got the glass, in a message underneath it.

So I like those stories of real things and what happened to these things that are being thrown away. It can be anything. I’m doing so many things. I don’t have any problem with imagination. There are so many things around you! I’m doing with aluminum foil. When you bake, the paper gets all——there are spots, and sometimes it gets all greasy, but then I wash, I have certain things that I do to make it work. Sometimes I just have one piece that retains the spots, which are very interesting——you know these spots when you bake things. Sometimes I paint. I have a few pieces that I painted on used aluminum foil. So I like to use those things, and I feel like when I get those things, and almost like I rescue them, in a way, from the trash, from being destroyed or thrown away, and transforming it into something beautiful. This for me reminds me of what God goes. God did not recycle us, making another human being, but He’s using us, His materials, His metal, and out of this metal comes life. In a way that’s what I’m connected to.

IA: So you preserve the identity of the original object to some extent, you don’t completely obliterate it, but then you renew it, you give it a second identity, a new identity as something more beautiful, as something with thought in it. It sounds like they almost have a narrative about where they were, where they’ve come from, and then what you’ve transformed them into.

NM: Yes, yes. I like those stories. Like today, I have one piece which is an old key, very old, I found it on the streets. I was walking and then I saw this key. Not a very fancy key, just a regular key, but it’s been thrown away for some time. But then I got that key and I chose a setting for it. I have a series of keys that I’m making. This whole idea of key, you know, there’s so much meaning on a key. A key, you know, just the word, open up many, many things. But then when I see the key, for me, I’m attracted; there is some beauty into some old things, rusty and all. There’s something in that old object, also.

IA: Has your imagination always worked this way? Have you always looked at discarded objects and thought about their stories and how to transform them, or is this a new way that you’re thinking recently?

NM: My background is not in art. I worked with cross-cultural training most of my life, so my background is in theology and cultural anthropology. That was my work. I also taught languages. But lately I got interested in art with one of my students. She painted with watercolors. She did beautiful work. I always came for the class and she said, “Look at what I’m doing!” I enjoyed it so much, she said, “Why don’t we trade sometimes? You teach me languages and I’ll teach you watercolors.” I enjoyed it SOOOO much; I thought, OMG, I should have been working with that for a long time. And I worked some on my own, but then I moved here, and I started to go to the city, see all the galleries. I kind of was thrown into this environment. So I started to read and think. One writing that changed my view on art was Kandinsky. I was given his book for Christmas. My husband gave it to me. And I read it. It really was amazing, how he saw art. And then another artist that I got in touch with through writing and seeing an opening that he was doing in the city: Robert Rauschenberg. I like that kind of thing. Because I thought: This is art, for now, that makes sense for me. Because——I still love watercolor, and I still work with watercolor; it’s not that I don’t think this is art: it is art, but it’s a different kind, or there is maybe another place and time, but not for me right now. What I consider my art (although I’m doing this watercolor), but my art, my message, what I want to say, is more contemporary. So, answering to your question, Have you always looked…? I was raised in Brazil, and my family, the circumstances of my life, we never had much, so I always used everything to the end. I always wanted to use things. I don’t like to throw away things. If there is a purpose for this, I want to use it. So I think this is part of my bringing-up. But now-a-days, since I started doing this, I ALWAYS see things this way.

IA: Everything is a potential work of art?

NM: Just about everything. Not every-, everything, but most things. Like, there was a TV, an old TV that we were supposed to donate or do something because we can’t use it any more, but I am very interested in disassembling it and seeing all of it. We are about to throw away an old lamp that we didn’t have use for it, because everything was broken. So I pulled it apart, everything apart, separated everything. And then I’m using the wire, what is inside? —the copper is inside. Sometimes they are thick, but sometimes they are very fine, beautiful things! Can you imagine?! So I put it with plastic and all this transparent plastic with these fine lines of wire. So I see those possibilities. I always see, everywhere I go; I always see possibilities.

IA: So you said that this is a very contemporary way of working; do you know of other artists who are working in a similar way? That they’re resurrecting old materials?

NM: There is one: Aurora Robson. There are many people working with recycled materials. I guess recycling is some sort of part of this new green thinking. Everybody is thinking green now-a-days. Actually, that’s not my motivation, it’s not the recycling, although I find myself doing that, in a way. Not really, because when you recycle you destroy it and use the material to make another one. So I’m not doing that, exactly, but I’m using things that could be recycled. So, there is this one person, which she does work with bottles, also, plastic bottles, most of it. Beautiful installations, huge, you know, and she cuts it and places it in different ways. It’s very interesting, also. But only——I’m not sure if she changes the nature of the bottle but just cuts it in different shapes and colors.

IA: So the fact that you are keeping trash out of landfills is a side benefit to what you are doing; that’s not the purpose; you didn’t say, rather than dumping them into the trash, you’ll make them into art?

NM: It’s a side benefit. Which makes me happy. I really feel happy. I feel like when I go and see a bottle on the street, maybe I get it. And I also, you know, I feel good that it’s almost like this should belong here, so I’m doing a good thing. I feel good.

IA: You’re making the world more beautiful and two way: you’re cleaning up the trash, and then you’re making works of art. Now, this other artist you mentioned who uses the bottles: Do you know if she has a spiritual motivation? Do you know if she, sort of, sees the metaphors of reclamation and redemption, or not?

NM: No, I don’t think so. She says, “There’s too much stuff in the world. I think art should just use what is——we should not do more things, but just use what we have and make other things, make art with it.” So she’s on to the recycling.

IA: But you have that other meaning as well, that you see it as a spiritual metaphor.

NM: It is, oh yes, I think it is spiritual. Also, because like these broken glasses. I put in eggshells. I painted the eggshells with gold. I love gold. You will see gold in many of the things that I do. So I put it inside. I put hot glue all around the glass where it broke, so it’s like this border, this golden border. And inside is the eggshell, I also painted with gold, gold leaf. It’s very beautiful, I think. For me, also, the broken in the eggshell which is a sign of life. For so many people who have been broken, not only Christians, and found life out of those brokenness. And so for me it’s inspiring. Not only Christian or spiritually, but just inspiring in itself.

IA: The nature of existence——you’re capturing that. So it’s more than metaphor, you’re not just doing a symbol, you’re not saying this represents that, you’re showing the way it is.

Now, What other artistic movements have you observed? Other trends that you see visual artists or installation artists using?

NM: Now-a-days it’s very difficult to see one trend. I read one book, and I have to say this is what really answered this question for me. The name of the book was Unnatural Wonders by Arthur Danto. He’s an art critic. He says that art took the place of philosophy. He starts with the piece “Brillo Box” by Andy Warhol. And he says, This is Art. And from that point on, art enters another historical period. It questions life. If you want to have a trend, I agree with him. I think art now-a-days questions life, in all areas.

IA: It goes far beyond being “just” an object to look at? It’s an object that is embodying questions, and views of life, and ideas of human nature, and ideas about society——is that what he is saying?

NM: Yes.

IA: So it goes beyond being an aesthetic object.

NM: Not only representation of an idea or a thought, but it replaces philosophy in the sense that it is questioning the whole existence of human society.

IA: And I would imagine, too (I wonder if he says this?), that the piece is not only the result of thoughts and questioning; it’s also the catalyst of more thoughts and questions as well. Because throughout all time, each work of part has been the result of questions and ideas on the part of the artist, but when it’s done, it’s just kind of there. And now the idea is to continue the conversation, to continue the questioning? I see that in music as well, and in other art.

NM: Yes.

IA: Who are some other artists whom you admire, who are working right now?

NM: I mentioned Robert Rauschenberg. I admire his work. I like the work of Vik Muniz (he's Brazilian); Louise Bourgeois; Richard Serra; Christo and Jeanne Claude; and Robert Ryman, among many others.

IA: How has your work been used in church? Have you had installations used in church?

NM: Basically my church (Trinity Presbyterian. When I moved in 2007, actually that was my first piece. It was Easter. I thought I would do some piece of art for the church. I asked the pastor if it was OK and he said it was OK. So what I did is I used canvas. I was supposed to put this piece for the Thursday before Good Friday. So it was the Death. I got a piece of large canvas and placed it, one Sunday before, like as a carpet for the people to come into the church, and the people all stepped on it. I bleached it a little bit before, so it would be more while. And it was raining, and it was kind of muddy, and so I had all these steps, the prints, the footprints. So I got one piece like that. And then I got another piece of canvas, and I put in the place where I wash my clothes, like in a Laundromat, and people stepped on it also. And I took a piece of wood, very old, and then a new one, and I nailed both together. I sprinkled some acrylic between the new and the old, so it looks wounded. You can see the reference to the wounds. And then I put these two canvases together, like the cross. I wrote an explanation, for people just thinking, “What is this dirty steps?” But I wanted to say that our dirty steps are there on the cross. So that was my first piece!

IA: And what was people’s response, after they saw the explanation?

NM: They liked it! Most people liked it and understood it in a different way. From that point on, I try to do one piece for Christmas or Easter or something, because I think there is always a message on the Cross and the Resurrection and everything. There is always something to be said in a different way that people can appreciate and think in a different way.

IA: It’s great that your church is supportive in that way.

NM: Yes. Now, I have a showcase through Redeemer; they have a fall showcase, which I’m going to talk about my arts, but also they have juried art exhibit in the fall, in which I will participate.

And Noemia also has a solo show at the moment; see the in the image at the top of this post.