A scene, a place, a moment strikes me, and I capture it in paint. The painting becomes a vessel containing the truth of the original. I mean both the physical truth of the objects and spaces comprising the original scene, and perhaps my emotional or psychological response to it. Robert Henri has a lovely little analogy of the sketch-artist as hunter, stalking through the world, seeking worthy quarry, and capturing the prey! There is a lot in that that I find familiar to my experience painting, especially the moment when you’ve captured what you were seeking. I have always likened art-works to time capsules. They are containers of meaning and information that can travel through time where they will be accessed by people far from their time and place of origination, even across centuries and cultures.
Painting is definitely physical as well as mental. There is the vision in your eye, the idea in your mind, but at least in the kind of painting I do, it comes down to hands and fingers. Unfolding the easel, pouring the terp, squeezing the paint tubes, holding the palette, mixing the paint, rinsing the brush, dabbing the pigment, stroking the canvas. And sometimes after hours of tedious technical work, my fingers fatigue and I fumble the brush to the ground. Good time for a break.
Sfumato, the smoky, blurred treatment of edges in a painting. DaVinci used this technique to great effect throughout the Mona Lisa, particularly at the corners of her mouth. It’s something I’ve increasingly employed in my paintings in recent years. You’d be surprised how much you can obscure. Almost obliterate an edge, and it will still read to the viewer as one. I’ve been using sfumato like shallow depth-of-field in photography, to increase the illusion of depth in my paintings. Atmospheric perspective states that objects further away from the viewer appear less distinctly than those close by. Fuzzy far away, clear up close. Most recently, I’ll make the background blurrier, the middle ground crisper, and the extreme foreground blurry again. I find it makes the viewer’s eye dive over the foreground and right into the painting. It’s a way to manipulate the viewer, and make them see what, and how, you want them to.
I remember finishing a great alla prima nocturne years ago. It had been a struggle, a battle, but in the end, after hours of working, I landed it. I took it to show my friends, and I referred to it as The Whale, as in “I landed a whale.” I think since then there have been a few more “whales” and more than a couple “beasts.” Almost every piece is, for some period during its creation, a foe, an opponent, even a beast. It requires tenacity, even obsessiveness, to see them through to completion. If you think about it, trying to manipulate colored paste with bristle-tipped sticks on a canvas to represent something is an impossible proposition. Certainly tremendously difficult. That it works at all, that it is possible, is part of why I am enchanted by this medium. And yet, there is always some ugliness in a piece when you leave it, some part that you didn’t get as right as you’d hoped, and in that sense there is something monstrous that remains in each of them.
Everything seems to be headed that way, and I love how low-tech and anachronistic painting feels in this era. Humans have been painting for tens of thousands of years, and even today I am using hair on the end of sticks to smear colored mud on a surface. It might as well be the cave-wall. I always think about painting as ancient and primitive. Make a mark. I was here. We were here. Its very primal for human beings, and I believe that as so much around us races through gadgets of near-immediate obsolescence, painting, modestly but powerfully, abides. As a painter I feel like a keeper of arcane knowledge almost entirely lost to the world. It’s romantic.
Time relates to painting in myriad ways. There are the hours and hours the paintings take to execute. The fact that a painting may well outlive its creator, and we can access something of Giotto, Michelangelo, even the painters of Lascaux and their times, from the paintings they left behind. There is often a long delay between the creation of the paintings and when they are appreciated by the world for their true value. Think of Van Gogh, Pollock, and innumerable others. And in the sense of temporal meaning “not-sacred,” Robert Irwin drew a lovely arc through the history of Art when he explained: you could only paint the Pope, then later, the Kings too, then the King’s serving maid, then just the maid’s red shawl, then eventually just the color red itself. So good.
Oh yes. Time. Solitude. Poverty. Obscurity. Let’s not pretend that painting is a big part, or even any part, of the daily lives of most people living today. Sure, they’ll appreciate it if you stick it under their nose, but ask 100 people in the supermarket if they had any thoughts related to painting today. I think building bridges, for example, is more useful and important than painting. There are rewards of course, subtle and rare though they may be. The satisfaction of earnest effort. The joy of sharing the beauty and truth of the world with others. The romance of pursuing a life others imagine difficult, if not impossible. The glory of choosing a free and independent métier in the face of this world’s pressures. Hew to your goals and gifts. You won’t regret it. And nobody lies on their death-bed wishing they’d spent more time at the office. They say,rather, “I wish I’d tried to write that novel…”
What was it Cezanne said? All of nature can be reduced to the cone, the sphere, and the cylinder? It’s a useful point when teaching people the fundamentals of drawing, but it’s just a spring-board, and an early one at that. Like training wheels for a bicycle. I think he’s one of the most over-rated and misinterpreted painters in the history of art. Maybe you had to be there. I’ve seen hundreds of his works in museums around the world, and I’ve visited his studio in Aix three times, and he could barely draw his way out of a paper bag. Did he intentionally open up the abstract side of painting or did he struggle with color, anatomy, and perspective? Even if it was intentional, did he really pull it off? I’m not so sure. If Braque and Picasso looked at his clumsy and awkward paintings and were inspired towards cubism, then that was a happy historical accident, like when chocolate met peanut-butter. I hope this tirade ruffles some feathers of the indoctrinated. Don’t get me wrong, Cezanne made some very good paintings. I’m just making a point about art history. Think for yourself and don’t swallow precedent without question. It is interesting and revealing to critique the canon of painting. Who made it in? How elevated are they, and why? Every artist should study the works of others and create their own canon. Fortunately we do it inadvertently. One of my very favorites is Francesco Lojacano. Who’s heard of him? He was much more useful to me than Cezanne, and his paintings were much better.
I like to make my paintings as realistic as possible. An important part of that is not just getting the surface features of a scene, but also getting the underlying anatomy of the land. I love to paint both the skin AND the bones of the landscape. The realism is established by the feel of individual leaves, the texture of the bark, and the hulking bulk of that tree on its gently sloping hill-side. These can enforce each other when done right, and foil one another when done wrong. I think a lot of landscape paintings may capture the color and surface of a scene, but they feel ethereal and insubstantial. Make me feel weight, density, and hardness where they exist.
Late fall and winter are great times for seeing these bones. When the leaves are down or the landscape is unified by a covering of snow, you can really comprehend the legacy of glacial movement, scars of erosion, the contrast of man-shaped spaces. The blasted rock-faces where roads have been cut, the dripping ice-sheets that form on them, and the subtle colors they contain based on the soils nearby and the light of the day…this is the visual bounty and richness of the world-around us.
Chaos is the paint box, no matter how often I straighten it up. Chaos is the coffee cans of paintbrushes, because I’m always acquiring more and almost never throwing any old ones out. The whole studio can be chaotic. I save organization and order for what happens inside the painting.
Colors are the stuff of painting. Precise colors are the stuff of good painting. How many names for colors can you come up with? Even these fall short of how many different colors we can perceive. Psychologists and marketers talk about the emotion charges of colors: red = anger, blue = calm, etc. Such an over-simplification. Its much more nuanced and fluid than that. I know nurturing, stabilizing reds, and irritable, disturbing blues. And what about the emotional or psychological effects of colors in combination? A full painting may be the result of combining a dozen, or scores, or hundreds of colors. I don’t think I’ve ever mixed up cerise, but maybe I’ll try.
Joel Griffith has been exhibiting throughout New York’s Hudson Valley since 1994. In 2003 he was named Painter Laureate of his hometown, Tivoli, New York. His series of seven paintings documenting the town are permanently displayed in the village’s historic Watts de Peyster Hall. He was included in the “Out of the Studio, Hudson Valley Artists 2004” exhibit at the Samuel Dorsky Museum in New Paltz. In 2005, he was awarded a Peter S. Reed Foundation Grant. Joel has an MFA from Bard College, and currently resides in Tivoli, NY, where he was recently appointed to the Village of Tivoli Board of Trustees. A gallery of his work-to-date can be found at his website: joelgriffithpainter.com.
This is the apple I ate two weeks ago. A Jonagold from the Wegmans on East Ave in Rochester. I was trying to write on a couch. The thrift store of my youth was closing, and I didn’t find anything I liked enough to remember it by. I wanted routine, comfort, home. My teeth felt like spinach from breakfast. I was balancing my checkbook instead of writing.
Pen and checkbook hung out on the shelf in the fridge while I worked the knot my friend had made on the bag of apples. It took two hands with the fridge door open. I didn’t cap the pen. I noticed there was salami from Wegmans, too. Her grandfather pronounced it Wedgemans.
I write about ordinary things. They go flat if they aren’t particular ordinary things. Sometimes they go flat anyway. People start using the word banal and convincing other people. After that first day, that first apple, I got going and the week was productive. One productive week this year felt enormous. I am sure there were other weeks like this, but it all moves forward pretty quickly.
My parents traveled. We traveled. We wrote a lot of notes. Left them for each other to find in suitcases, pillowcases. My dad is writing about an ancestor who sailed from Boston to China. Mom is writing fiction. Brother is freelancing for news publications. I’m figuring how to grow a whole story.
Songs. Mountains. Then there are animals. Other origin stories. Bees, rats, birds, bears, dogs. I try not to write about cats since I don’t usually have questions about them. Lately I’ve been reading about captive apes and writing about cattle. Captive apes we try a lot of things with. Start with a dart gun and some disease, move on to sign language. Watch
your back. Offer your back. What can we learn from them? From ourselves with them?
Compare humans to chimps. There’s a lot to look at. One of them has something up her sleeve, likes to play. Apparently we do, too. We’ll argue about empathy, too. Think about bonobos, too. We say or refuse to say crazy things to each other. Stand with our weight in such odd places. Corollary. Sounds like carotid artery, too. Makes my head light with all the accuracy.
That kind of person, that kind of steady. Cheerful in a way I imagine my grandfather was encouraged to be cheerful by band leaders when he successfully snuck in to a hotel ballroom as a kid with his date in Los Angeles. That kind of aged, earnest force mixing sometimes with clever company.
A wide barge, too. Plow through, make walls. Move around. Breathe a little. Not much to argue with. If there’s anything sinister (brick thrown to harm, body stowed in barge), it’s certainly not the tool’s fault. Or the band leader. The kid’s not starting anything, he just wants to dance with these people, impress his date. There is a river by my house. There is a canal across my state. In college, I found a friend from the Bay Area who’d also learned the Erie Canal song in elementary school.
I watched men make grey bricks in Conakry, Guinea this past winter, watched them stack. Kids were playing soccer in the lot next door. They yelled fote (white), we yelled fore (black), they giggled; more bricks, more yelling. We came back a few days later. As the stacks became walls, we noticed that someone (bricklayer? kid from the game? fisherman who had wandered by?) had pooped in the bathroom. How did they know it was the bathroom? All it had was walls at that point. Now they’re raising money for the roof.
I think first, though, of red. Of that color. The outer wings of the beach at Kingston Point littered with water chestnut casings and old bricks. What to pick up in your hands first. Fresh water chestnuts with a knife eaten on a seat in a canoe. Pulling chalk lines on a roof for shingling. Stacking. When I make things, it’s one piece at a time. Pieces in a pile. Then I move them around. See how they sit next to each other, see what takes. Heineken bottles once built for making glass houses. It didn’t take. It doesn’t always.
I wish I had learned sign language, wish to learn sign language. You have to use your face a lot more than hearing people do. My parents would sign to each other over our heads when we were short enough to sign over and young enough to be on opposite teams. Then we went to Germany. Now we all speak German.
I think about anthropomorphism. Personification. We trick each other. I read fairy tales. I’ve been making my way through Herodotus. Essays about science and nature. People end up feeling tricked. How we all relate to each other and what remains have to do with that. I lived in Bosnia for two months when I was eighteen. Everything was under ground. Salt mines. Land mines. Their brothers and fathers. Someone invited me along to a mass grave exhumation.
She said college would be the best years of my life. Men on lead mats were slipping instruments just below the earth to see about explosives. Other men with less metal pushed their cows across the fields first, testing too.
Compare humans to cows. Why? Or maybe just what it is to be clever. Strategy and tactics. A fox, not a cow, right?
I love October. Thank you for October. There is no better month. Thanks for all these great words. For making Defeffable. This. Things with wood. Things with paper. Images. I love that we ran that reading series together. After every reading, I wanted to run home and write. Such smart curious people in those rooms/bunkers/halls.
I was in northeastern Wyoming this spring and worried I would miss the spring peepers back east. I loved that I thought of it as back east, the way my uncle does when he speaks of where he went to high school in Massachusetts from where he lives in California. I don’t know if it’s that I like the way spring peepers sound, or I like that their sound is part of my understanding of home. I am worried about bats. Some frogs are disappearing too, but spring peepers seem okay so far. This fall, I am enjoying the way Elizabeth Kolbert writes.
O my. Yes. Definitely. But sometimes later, or slowly, or on our own. It doesn’t always have to be an intervention, a declaration. Forgiveness, yes. But also ablution, which is, to me, a sort of stepping away from or out from, and a thing not always witnessed.
Not usually related to resolution, but necessary for every next step. There can be so much loss involved. It bears repetition and practice, for the sake of it and for the sake of hope. I think this is quite hard, but have seen people do it with ease.
hausfrau (sound file in German and English)
Ich wollte sagen, Ich habe genug Besteck, aber das Besteck steht in einigen Kisten, und die Kisten stehen seit Januar im Schrank. Also, benutze Ich das Besteck von einer anderen Frau. Wir sind Mitbewohner. Keiner von uns ist Hausfrau. Keine richtige Hausfrau, obwohl wir kochen können. Und obwohl Ich das Schrieben anfangen kann, nur wenn das Geschirr abgewaschen ist.
Is there a clever way of getting around the thing? I hate trying to have a conversation with someone wearing sunglasses. I’m not sure why I’m trying. I try so hard. We do. We do need to protect our eyes.
I am looking for something, but I’m often more effective if I don’t know what. Finding can be such a let down. I thought about this while writing for my friend Deb Baxter’s collection Wanting is Easier Than Having this year. I play solitaire, or think of it, most nights before bed. The looking ought to stretch out and yawn between all the nose-to-the-ground ear-to-the-wall actions.
You know it. It’s been good for me. Can I just agree? Keep an eye on your selves. Touch a frog. Collect a brick. Take a nap. Yes.
Dorothy Albertini is writing fictions in Poughkeepsie this October. She collaborated with sculptor Debra Baxter on Wanting is Easier Than Having in the spring, and is currently collaborating with a group of visual artists and writers to make a poem. Recent work appears in Drunken Boat, H _ngm_n, and on WHLV. Visit dorothyalbertini.com for more details.
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.