Visage is a great word—latinate with an edge. I moved around so much growing up that I feel I am a fairly good reader of people. I wonder, if I could paint—representationally or figurally I mean—how I would paint people’s faces. Or rather, I wonder how I see people when I spend some time with them, how I come to know them both in first impression and later impressions, and how that would manifest itself on canvas. Probably I would paint them more Cy Twombly than Johannes Vermeer, given my aesthetic sensibilities. Or like Kay Sage in “Le Passage,” she would have her back to you. But sometimes I really wish I had the choice in medium.
My painting is third grade art at best. I used to paint every Sunday, especially in my mid-20s when I lived in Austin. It helped me get out of writing head when blocked by moving into a diffferent spatial sense. That move is now inhabited by designing and constructing handmade books. I used to say that I was a baby bookmaker. Maybe now I consider myself an adolescent one. I don’t know.
I love the definition of this word, but even more so that the etymology is “a wandering through.” Isn’t that just marvelous? When I was 19 I read the Tao Te Ching, and it was the most astonishing thing I felt I’d ever read. I understood it on a very intuitive level. Perhaps it appealed to the poetic sensibilities rooted inside me. In any case, reading the Tao began a 20 year relationship with reading Asian philosophy and religion in translation. It more often than not makes more sense to me than Western religion. I’ve been reading Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen (translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi) for a while. I can’t seem to let myself finish it. It’s so rich.
There is a simple way to become a Buddha: When you refrain from unwholesome actions, are not attached to birth and death, and are compassionate toward all sentient beings, respectful to seniors and kind to juniors, not excluding or desiring anything, with no designing thoughts or worries, you will be called a buddha. Do not seek anything else.
For my Advanced Poetry Writing Course this fall, I’m doing a unit on traditional Chinese women’s poetry to focus primarily on image. My work has undoubtedly been influenced by traditional Chinese poetics—the lack of “I”, the melancholy (however posed), the images (the concrete ground), a conscience of the natural world, poetry “to the tune of”—so thoroughly indebted to song—like the poems of the Song dynasty.
I’m laughing because the first thing (or person) I thought of was Bernadette Mayer. I first met Bernadette when I took one of her workshops at the confluence of two creeks in East Nassau—I think that was her last workshop, in fact. Quickly, I learned that being around Bernadette made me feel like I feel when I’m around my women cousins—i.e. conspiratorial. There are eight women first cousins on my Dad’s side. When I get around them, especially the second oldest after me, we tend to do a 12-year-old regress. I feel this way with Bernadette, but it’s with an edge. I wish I had more time to conspire with women poets. I love, too, that the roots of this word—like inspire, conspire—contain breath. The breath is in the line. I have a piece in my first book, Our Parenthetical Ontology—“What’s the difference between aspiration and ambition? One lets you breathe.”
Lee Brown, who was my great-grandfather and the father of my paternal grandfather, used to grow cantelope in Quitman, in the piney woods of northeast Texas. I always felt that cantaloupe was a better word than melon. I have some theories as to why. But in this case, specifically, like many of your words here, melon seems it could march off the page as both verb or noun. Through my early to mid-twenties, I had four great-grandparents alive. I feel that gave my brother and I a peculiar ease; not only with people older than us, but also people a variety of ages. I have a photograph with Papa Brown on our stone mantle. I’m three, up on a donkey with him. He’s guiding us in overalls and a straw cowboy hat. I ended up with a pair of his overalls when he died; they are upstairs in a storage closet tote with all the cocktail attire I never wear. I wore those overalls for a long time. I still have them and can’t bear to throw them out. When I went to Boise, Idaho for the first time, all these young women—20 somethings at thrift stores and such—wearing similar clothes. When I think of Boise, I think of my favorite Ahsahta Press books. But first I think of a young woman in braids and overalls.
Let me reiterate how much I love that you choose these words with multiplicity—as noun and adjective in this case. But as timely benefits, my first boon came in moving to Seattle: volunteer work with Richard Hugo House, the writing group that made writing an even more significant part of my week, the landscape that inhabited my breath, my introduction to Port Townsend as a writerly and productive space. The next boon: my community at Western Washington University. I was in a remarkably supportive group of writers during the period of getting my Master’s. We were so fortunate to have that tight community during those two years. Third boon: my job at Pace, just in the nick of time.
Sun sparkling on water. Weird light cast on walls and through windows in the house, on plants, through the bay window. An eastern amberwing skimming the surface of the lake down the hill, where I’m still, before swimming on. Swimming into the V of a setting sun in any kind of water. Making jewelry for friends and giving each piece a poetry name.
The connections between music and my writing that shimmer. Sometimes secrets that I see within or between my lines as I’m reading them to an audience (the helicopter of “Becoming” flew right out of PJ Harvey’s “This Mess We’re In”). What a word’s done to the page when its more private history becomes a part of this public object or piece. Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Titanium and silver rings. Love that feeds the comfort to write.
I have had a number of solicitations of my own work this past two weeks, which feels pretty good. As fiction editor for Drunken Boat and as guest curator of Trickhouse, I have solicited work from artists and writers around the world for two folios—one for Bernadette Mayer’s work and another for handmade/homemade objects. It feels good to be on both sides of that fence. Otherwise the word solicit just makes me think of lawyers in the UK.
When I make a necklace or a bracelet for a friend or family, I lay it out and design it first. It’s an assemblage of sorts. I discuss this more at length in a forthcoming experimental interview between me, Bernadette Mayer and Kate Schapira in Denver Quarterly. I really enjoy designing handmade book objects around a text in order to let it manifest in a different way in the world. Even something as simple as a photograph gets wrapped with language in an instant. After the hurricane, Karl and I were taking a walk. The low sun was setting part-pink on the lake down the hill, and I took the image. At the same time I was composing the image, the words post-avant came to mind. Like all labels, this one, too, is charged or fraught with meaning. I think that’s partially what interests me. Pointing to, challenging, undermining meaning through language and also through other mediums (film, photography, jewelry, etc.). In the Derridian sense, play.
Lori Anderson Moseman had given me these strange, antique, 2×2” cards from China, and I planned to do a series of very small books with them. I made one for Jen Hofer called Sulphur, in response to Tangelo, a piece she wrote with Patrick Durgin. Did you know sulphur is the same as the illustrious brimstone of the “fire and brimstone?” The piece ended up in Elements. Sulphur is found in skeletal materials, meteorites, galena, hot springs, gypsum, volcanoes.
A verb and a noun. Orange. Fall, my favorite season. Why favorite seasons? Because people feel more alive? I feel more alive in autumn. There’s a fly buzzing around my office right now. Outside my window, I can see boulder after boulder, bushes, trees and trees, more grass and, barely, my neighbor’s driveway next door. This view is one of my favorites in the house; it is why I love writing in this space. From season to season, a harvester of words.
Hurricane Irene knocked out a significant chunk of our CSAs (Roxbury Farm) crop recently. Still, for the first pickup after the storm, we had fresh garlic, red sweet peppers, beets, squash, tomatoes of various kinds. I always feel a certain delight during the weekly pick up. Within the first year I met my husband, Karl Bode, his house on the Susquehanna River was flooded in Conklin, New York. Stockport Flats Press, which published my Elements with the Meander Scar series, named itself for the flood plain on the Pennsylvania side of the Upper Delaware. After their own clean-up of the same Federal Disaster, #1649, poet Lori Anderson Moseman and producer Tom Moseman created the press. Karl’s house was a rental, but it was a house he worked on from the ground up with his brother-in-law. He lost 90% of his belongings. Once they let us back in to town—the waters were 6′ up the inside of houses in most cases—we went and cleaned up mud for days. I was writing my first field exam in Poststructuralist and Language theory with William V. Spanos at the same time. That field exam was the hardest of the three I took to get my doctoral degree, for many reasons. I feel for these communities and individuals, like Tarpaulin Sky Press, whose livelihoods were rocked by flooding from Hurricane Irene.
I feel that in my twenties—until probably my early 30s—I was a little adrift in terms of my writing. I worked in business America and always seemed to land on my feet wherever I moved and wherever I worked. But I was always trying to fit my writing into whatever hours I had left. My creative self was frustrated, and I allowed myself also to be distracted by a number of things. I spent my last two years, before the turn to academe, working for Microsoft. I was doing remarkably well at Microsoft: riding my scooter through the hallways, being promoted, making good money. But I wasn’t really happy. I barely had time to write, let alone publish. I would go to art openings, music shows and readings, and my stomach would flip. I would think, this is not what I’m supposed to be doing; this is not making a difference the way I want to make a difference. September 11th happened, and I shortly thereafter applied to a Master of Arts program, with Creative Writing focus, at Western Washington University. If I got in, I would see how I felt. When I got in, I felt like going. Midway through my Masters, I was hungry for more learning. So in my second year, I applied to PhD programs and was accepted at University of British Columbia in Vancouver and Binghamton, SUNY. I moved to New York to do my PhD at SUNY.
I talked on the phone with a friend in San Antonio, Texas the other night, and he said he was so amazed at what I had done. It was kind of a profound moment on the phone with him. I rarely reflect on how I set that path for myself—a path more fulfilling—walked down it and had the good fortune to land at Pace where I am able to fulfill my own creative goals, extend literary and arts community, and teach precisely what I wanted to teach (literature and creative writing).
Now I’m adrift in ways that are more okay with me—between coasts, between life as a writer and a teacher, between genres.
Deborah Poe is author of the poetry collections Elements (Stockport Flats Press 2011), Our Parenthetical Ontology (CustomWords 2008) and several chapbooks—most recently a four-part edition entitled the last will be stone, too as part of the Dusie Kollektiv (5). Deborah’s work has recently appeared in the Galerie de Difformite online chapbook Tableaux Meurants, Peep/Show, Night Train, Bone Bouquet, Trickhouse, No Contest, Fact-Simile Magazine, Peaches & Bats and Denver Quarterly. For more information, please visit www.deborahpoe.com.