Artist Jan Madill and sculptor Michael Yeaman's works are on exhibit at the Orcas Center on Orcas Island (Washington) in "Light and Shadow," a show inspired by geology. Exploring the planet's geological history as well as humanity's relatively short existence in comparison, the exhibit prompts viewers to consider what Yeaman calls "Deep Time." In addition, a collaborative series of paintings and poems between Jan and the poet Connee Pike reflects on Carl Jung's concept of the shadow.
The show continues until Sunday, September 27 with a closing celebration from 3:00-5:00 pm that day. A true collaborator at heart, Jan Madill often invites other artists to participate in her events, and I am thrilled to have been asked to read some of my geology-inspired poems for the closing. Thinking about the event has prompted me to think about the nature of collaboration and interdisciplinary inspiration. As a writer, I enjoy the company of other writers. As with probably any profession or discipline, the collegial conversation is especially rewarding because there is often shared knowledge or understanding of the field and its history, as well as a shared lingo, both of which lend themselves toward specialized discussion. We don't have to stop and explain what a caesura is, and when someone quotes Richard Hugo saying," Stop thinking hard for us all, Bill" we don't need to say that he's responding to William Stafford's poem, "Traveling through the Dark."
That's all lovely, and writers can explicate the vowels of villanelles all night; however, something far more inspiring happens, for me, that is, when the conversation is more interdisciplinary. Gather different artists working in different media and the discussion explodes in fascinating directions. The differences among the various art forms are fascinating to learn. The similarities in our processes are equally interesting and informative. Suddenly the visual artist wonders about color theory and whether light waves can have assonance and dissonance as in music or poetry, for example.
This summer I've been in a broadside collaboration with print artist Karen Kunc, and this December, I will continue a collaboration with the visual artist Corinne Duchesne and composer Garrett Hope. When I work with Corinne and Garrett, I have to resist the urge to have defined parameters and scope for our collaboration, if only to have the comfort of an idea of direction. When we do resist that urge we open ourselves to possibility. Seeing Jan Madill's artwork (not to mention talking with her in person), reminds me constantly of how important it is to remain open to possibility. Her artwork takes on huge topics--like geology, and even the universe. I suspect for most creatives, such ambitious themes are daunting, perhaps terrifying. What I notice about Jan, though, is that she never purports to represent the entirety of her topic. Nor does she act as expert. She opens the door to curiosity, her own and the curiosity of others. That curiosity quickly converts to wonder, which I think of as an awe-filled curiosity. And maybe that's what I love about collaboration: to be in a state of awe-filled curiosity of others' disciplines and works. It's how I feel having seen Jan's paintings, Michael's sculptures, and Connee's poems, and it's also how I feel hearing Garrett's music and Corinne's artwork, and how I feel seeing Karen's prints. Awe, admiration, and the presence of something that transcends boundaries of our how we view "art" and its various "disciplines."
Are you sick of the Michael Derrick Hudson issue of submitting poetry under the name of a Taiwanese immigrant, including one poem that Sherman Alexie selected for Best American Poetry (BAP)? The response to it has been fascinating, from pure outrage and vitriol in social media, to today's poem in Rattle by Sam Cha. The poem, entitled "i am michael derrick hudson," condemns both Hudson's choice to submit poetry under a different ethnicity, as well as his poetics. It's perfectly understandable for Cha and the rest of the poetry world to be pissed about cultural appropriation (I certainly am)--especially if it takes opportunities from underrepresented voices. It also makes sense for poets to respond in poetry, and I'm glad to see Cha and Rattle join the conversation.
I won't delve into the craft of Cha's poem, other than to say there is much to admire, because that's not what struck me most. What struck me was the Cha's apparent ad hominem attacks on Hudson in parallel with mocking his work. Again, the anger is understandable, but now what?
Call me naive, but I like to think of poets as leading the examined life. I like to think we're a thoughtful bunch who are less likely to react with vehemence than the rest of the population. I like to think that we seek understanding first. Ah, but then I'm reminded of Sayre's law, that was first stated about academia, but works just as well for poetry. He essentially said the intensity of politics in academia is high because the stakes are so low. Poetry has got to be about the lowest-paying profession on earth. Granted, a poem in BAP can have a tremendous domino effect for a person's poetry career, so the stakes, in this case, got a little bigger.
Nonetheless, what will it take for us to rise above our initial impulses of shock and anger? What will it take for us to seek understanding of Hudson's, Alexie's, and others' responses to inequity? In the last several years, we've seen horrifying evidence of how people of color are sometimes treated by the police and even individual vigilantes. Are our responses to the poem magnified because of these incidents? Is our anger an outgrowth of our fist-in-the-air response as we shout, "Black lives matter!" And, really, isn't our anger also an expression of a much deeper grief?
Still, I have to wonder, if others, including in some cases the family members of those who have been killed, can reach a point of seeking understanding and creating dialogue, can we as poets do the same? I don't mean to say that Sam Cha should not express his outrage, or that he shouldn't use his great powers of wit, which he does so very well. Nor am I letting Hudson off the hook. I'm asking what's next? How do we get past our angry reactions? How do we shift from condemnation to conversation without voicing the same "narcissism of difference" we've repeated for centuries?
Poets, can we set the example? Can we create a vision for equality, even as we call out the injustices? Incidentally,The Inflectionist Review, employs one possible strategy. Editors John Sibley Williams and A. Molotkov use a blind reading process to help prevent prejudice and preferential treatment. Of course, blind reading is not the only answer, but it's a start.
Added 9/15/2015: Lunch Ticket also uses blind submissions. If you know of any others, please let me know!
Reactions have been echoing across the internet to Michael Derrick Hudson using a Taiwanese immigrant's name to place his poem in Prairie Schooner and eventually Best American Poetry (BAP). Responses have ranged from outright condemnation of an act seen as appropriating identity to advance his own work, to condemnation of BAP's editor this year, Sherman Alexie, for racism after he admitted he gave the poem closer attention because he believed the author to be a person of color. While the furor has raised quite the online froth, it occurs to me that instead of condemning Alexie and Hudson, I feel a little sorry for them both. And, in truth, I have been drawn into both lines of reasoning in my own life as a poet and editor.
A year ago, I jokingly told a fellow poet I was tempted to reach far back in my family tree for a name that didn't sound quite so northern European as McCabe Johnson (don't get me started on whether the Irish have been colonized, and oppressed in both Ireland and the Americas, or whether Swedes have been particularly oppressive, either). I didn't submit under a different family name, but I entertained the idea. But then I thought about how generations of many demographic groups have found it difficult to get their words in print, and how important it is to give voice to those underrepresented groups. Besides, how despicable would it be to steal the opportunities from them when they finally do have a shot at getting published (especially since my name and skin color give me white privilege every day), when instead I should seek out those underrepresented voices and perspectives. And here's where I leaned toward Alexie's thinking.
As I was editing the anthology Being: What Makes a Man, essays and poems responding to the imperative "Be a man," I realized I had a high percentage of straight, white voices. Not 100%, but probably more than the general U.S. population. Like Alexie, I wanted a fair representation of a range of demographics. I wanted to ensure important voices were heard. So I looked for works by writers I admire whose demographics were not well represented with writing that would add something new and significant to the anthology. Those pieces are now among my favorites. Was seeking work from underrepresented voices a form of prejudice? No doubt. But we're back to the old Affirmative Action question. When groups have been denied opportunities, is it unfair to seek to balance the scales?
Of course, there's a big difference between selecting works for an anthology, and selecting works for BAP. Being published in BAP, especially for the first time, gives a huge boost to any poet's career. Their work is celebrated as among the "best" that year. Well, we all know how misleading that is since inclusion is terribly subjective according to the current editor's aesthetic. There really is no such thing as "best."
In their own ways, both Hudson and Alexie (and possibly Kwame Dawes, when first selecting Hudson's poetry for Prairie Schooner) acted in response to what they saw as an uneven playing field when it comes to being published. I'm not condoning these actions, especially Hudson's cultural appropriation, but I think I understand the fear behind the impulse. Ultimately, though, what will make a level playing field in publishing will be for we writers to be honest in our self-representations, and for we editors to judge work on its own merits. Personal and professional integrity. Imagine that.
Darvill's, the local bookstore on Orcas Island, has been unable to keep adult coloring books off the shelves this year. We've noticed guests at our B&B using them, too. Marketers have touted the stress-reducing benefits of spending unfettered time focused on coloring. This will come as no surprise to artists, especially those who enjoy an almost meditative, zen-like state of mind as they work.
Studies are now connecting art and improved cognitive abilities. For example, art therapy has helped Alzheimer's and dementia patients map new communication paths in the brain, increase vocabulary, and also improve their self-worth through a sense of accomplishment. The results appear to be more pronounced in people who have been doing art their whole lives, which researchers have speculated may be due to a kind of procedural repetition, similar to muscle memory. However, even those who have never done art can reap benefits such as increased social interaction and sensory stimulation.
And those benefits aren't exclusively for the elderly or those in cognitive decline. One of our B&B guests mentioned that she could be reactionary, and sometimes obsessed over things. Coloring calmed her, and took her thoughts away from quotidian troubles.
I would have thought artists might find the color books a little silly. Why simply color in someone else's design? But when I asked a handful of artists what they thought, they all had positive things to say. The advantages they saw as artists were:
1) Coloring in someone else's drawing forces the artist out of his or her own compositional patterns, and lets her or him engage with a different design (rather than just looking at it) in a practical way.
3) It allows the artist to play with color combinations on a composition that is low-commitment and low-risk, meaning they don't have to take the time to come up with their own composition, and if it doesn't work, they don't care. It becomes a field for experimentation without the pressure of creating an original work.
4) Depending on the subject of the design, they can learn about the anatomy, architecture, or general structure of the objects depicted by spending time coloring in each feather, cupola, leaf, or other component.
5) Just as singing scales helps vocalists warm up, coloring can help artists do the same.
I admit, my knee-jerk reaction was to pooh-pooh adult coloring books. 'Why not sketch your own drawings?' I thought. But now I look at it a little differently. Maybe coloring actually improves our quality of life and makes us better artists, too. The more I think about it, the more I think adults should try more kids' activities. Summer camp and hoola-hoops come to mind.
Jill McCabe Johnson's research and writing practice follow the tradition of the French Medieval poetic form, the "chanson d'aventure" or song of adventure, where a writer walks into a new environment for enlightenment and inspiration.