BARD Graduate Center Library Talk, February 11, 2019
Thank you, Everyone, for stopping in to hear my talk. I decided to make the presentation somewhat formal so I would be sure to touch on all the things I want to say today.
Thank you Heather and Emily for inviting me to be part of BARD’s developing Visiting Artist program. It’s been wonderful getting a sense of the space and having a chance to meet all of the people who care so much about delving into and preserving material culture.
I think of a library, and certainly this library center, as a place of enchantment. The first day exploring with Heather a few weeks ago it became clear that over a lifetime we come to know so much that we forget that holding knowledge, building internal libraries of our own, is the extraordinary gift of memory, passion, and willpower. In this moment, for me, it’s like explaining to you, looking backwards through my practice, why I’m holding on to what I’m holding, which feels so inevitable, and in some ways, so obvious and ordinary to me.
I thought I’d begin by sharing my poem Burial Grounds, from the chapbook The Glassblower’s Tale, since it deals with the shift for our species from simple survival to aspiration, to imagining a ‘more’, which involved developing an awareness and memory, of pleasure, longing, loss and the complex forces incorporated into beauty, and our impulse to save—save ourselves and the objects we invest with meaning. Burial Grounds has three parts:
In a valley a woman unearths a 40,000 year old bead.
She palpates the pitted surface, squinting through its tiny hole.
The world before her—blue, green, gold. Beneath her feet,
the compact, gritty matter upon which an ancient people gathered.
Long ago, in the legendless universe before this bead,
danger was more magnificent than art.
She pauses, looks toward the horizon, then squats to search for
the tool that formed the opening.
Sometimes she finds a leg bone,
sometimes part of a pelvis,
sometimes an entire torso,
every rib preserved.
The draw to ruin is strong in her.
She loves parts—stories.
She unearths a skull, holds it high.
Within her, breath expands and the cavities
of the eyes fill.
Multitudes stream across borders.
Through an open window, ripples of anger are like the skin of an onion—
easy to ignore, hardly worth the trouble of crushing.
She whispers in my ear— Earth is the only anchor.
Halfway around the globe, a storm, masturbating to its own incantation,
pulls into it wood, stone, steel,
skin, bone, hair.
I live my life as if a tsunami could strike at any moment. I’ve always been acutely aware of the life affirming power of curiosity as practiced through making—making anything at all. As a seven year old, I would order little mice and butterfly pin sets through the mail, using ads I cut out from my mother’s Woman’s Day magazine. They came with tiny, fake jewels—peridot, ruby, sapphire, emerald, that you picked up with a special, wax–tipped wand and glued into eye holes. Then I would go door to door, through each building in our Bronx housing project, and sell them, usually to young mothers at home with their children. With the money I made I would order more kits.
That practice, and the intimate joy behind it, remains intact today. Everything I do I do with a precise, almost giddy appreciation for the possibilities in fusing materials, ideas, energies.
The Central Issue In My Work
The heart of my practice is working beyond fear. More specifically, living outside of the fear–state that is the centrifugal force of much of American culture. This state is induced and reinforced by the proliferation of violent public images and language, narrowly defined scripts for relationship, silences around racial and gender aggression, outright lies about motivations for public policies, hostile environments for basic movement from place to place, tolerance for the degradation of certain populations, a stunning disrespect for the natural world. American culture thrives on aggression. More than that, the culture’s connection to violence has an orgiastic intensity that is rarely discussed, that permeates and taints much of contemporary life. Forms of ‘entertainment’ are designed to induce a state of arousal that diminishes our capacity to rest, to digest, to be uncertain—all fundamental components of creativity.
My mission as an artist, writer, and now as the founder of Artpoetica, my studio and project space in Brooklyn, is to tell the sometimes brutal truth about what I see around me, and to honor and celebrate my own and other’s ability to both hold and envision.
Race and Gender in My Art and Poetry
In the world I grew up in, blackness and the feminine were assigned certain qualities that remain pretty much intact today: the Void, the organic, uncontrollable, flowing, soft, deep, mysterious, untrustworthy, primitive, ugly, unclean. I remember being referred to as a Negro, and feeling on a gut level that that was an attempt to make a thing out of me. I remember jumping rope and noticing a group of boys snickering because my underpants showed, and how confused and wounded I felt. And yet, blackness and femaleness have been the deepest reservoirs for me. There’s an unease or dis-ease that I’ve sensed for as long as I can remember around being female and black. This hum of threat, and my confusion as to the why of it, are where my work comes from. Each thing I make is a kind of spirit bomb, an assertion of, and evidence of moments unconstrained. Over decades I’ve built a life that is defiantly erotic. By erotic I mean open, without fear of being subsumed, while understanding that the body I’m in is continually disappearing and re-appearing.
I’d like to share a poem from my latest collection, Identifying the Body, published last year by The Word Works. The poem begins with a quote about rage, the dominating emotion of this national moment. The quote comes from the blog Rage, Shame and the Death of Love, by William Cloke, PHD.
Rage is most often produced from a perception of “rejected love.”
Is my body mine or yours?
Who are you?—the State, my
ex, my son, my friend
someone I meet online?
Is the body that is sometimes mine
What do I know about this body?
I know it is dark
From darkest to lightest, it is almost the darkest a
body can be—that dark, that black
My body has been entered for its blackness
It is capable of arousing meaning
Its darkness can cause what blackness means to
others to vibrate. It can make them want to enter
make them want to touch, make them simply
a some mysterious even to me
I’ve been accused of pretending to be
oblivious of my body’s power
its power to incite
One cavalier stroker of my blackness suggested that I am a
that my desire to use my body to
gain stroking trumps my desire to stroke others
My lust to touch others has rarely been met
I inherited a deep reticence from my mother
My father was indiscriminate in the uses of his body
no doubt that is why he died young
taking in what he ought not
fucking, puking, shitting in the wrong places
My body learned early who to mistrust
My lack of trust has not deterred the touchers
the queries about how this all works
My body made two sons
Each time I thought I would die
As they came through me they had zero thought for my
Sweat poured from me and I wept at the possible loss
I do love them now
I can use my body to calm things down
I’m told so again and again
More and more I use it that way—
to say grace
A Brief History
I’ve been an artist for as long as I can remember. As a kid, my heart always beat faster when the teacher said we were going to do arts and crafts. I can easily put myself back in those classrooms and remember things that we made and the pleasure I felt losing myself in the process.
It was a chance comment by one of my professors in college, Gabriel Asfar, (whose seminar Francophone Poets of North Africa was one of my favorite courses) that allowed me to imagine myself as a poet. We had been asked to translate a long French poem, and in the seminar roundtable each student read their translation out loud. Professor Asfar remarked that I would have to be a poet myself to translate my lines as I did. This moment, lasting mere seconds, changed the course of my life, and underscores my belief that words, for good or ill, are the most powerful things in human societies.
Within a year of graduating from Princeton, I decided that I would be an artist, because it would be the hardest thing I could do. It was still the thing that made my heart beat faster than anything else. It would be a solitary calling, to be sure, because no one goes to Princeton and becomes an artist, or certainly very few people do.
I did the usual artist things with the usual successes and failures. For many years my work was primarily abstract, and I have a few examples of similar work from those decades with me today.
I began my series of dress collages around 1994. They grew directly out of these abstract pieces which have a somewhat Japanese sensibility in terms of color and form. The abstracts morphed into rudimentary kimonos, and then over the years into the smaller, complex dress collages I make today.
I use the dress collages as my sketchbook. I find them hilarious while I’m making them, in a way that’s not true with any of my other work. I love that each one feels like a person, though no body is there. I love that it’s a dress—such a female object, whether worn by a woman or man. Their capacity to pull so much from the past to say something potent, yet subtle, about the present is why I keep making them.
I returned to representational painting in 2003, after 4 years studying traditional methods of oil painting with Andrew Reiss, a Brooklyn painter who has been teaching out of his studio for decades. It’s impossible to live in the cluster of Brooklyn neighborhoods closest to Manhattan and not see Andy’s signs. I’ve seen them in art stores in Manhattan too. Working with Andy was an extraordinary gift. Sunday afternoons a group of us, all ages, all abilities, painted from the model and learned basic techniques. These fundamentals have been critical to my practice. Whenever I’m painting, I hear Andy saying ‘shadow, background, light’, the basic sequence for building an oil painting.
I returned to oil painting because my original question as a kid was how do the masters make their paintings look the way they do? I wanted to see if I could begin to decode that level of beauty, that level of spiritual engagement derived from blobs of color. It’s the boldest career move I ever made, and it’s the time when A.I.R. Gallery’s mission, to support women artists regardless of the commercial viability of their work, served me well. As a New York Artist I was able to embrace the risk, and exhibit my fledgling paintings without fear.
My Use in A Sentence paintings and Still-ed Life paintings, examples of which I also brought with me, grew out of my desire to take my time refining my technique, while saying something about now. Could I work on form—my big idea, in an emotionally challenging way? I wanted to create work in which the subjects were so mundane—soft, small, or playful, certainly domestic—that a hurried viewer wouldn’t ‘get’ them at all, would maybe even be a bit contemptuous of what seemed to be offered. In this sense I see the paintings as stand–ins for myself, and the assumptions often made about whether I’m worth getting close to. And what is intimacy anyway, and who gets to say? Are marbles as delicious as a naked white woman? Can an image of cut open fruit make someone’s mouth water? Who gets to decide who’s important and what’s worth looking at? If I refuse to be casual, about anything, in an environment that asks me to pretend nothing really matters, can I survive being invisible? What’s so scary about depth anyway?
My Race Card and Woman Card decks, my most recent work, grow out of the idea of taking something well understood—playing the race card, or playing the woman card, and seeing how inventive I can be with them visually. What I love is the open ended nature of the series, because since a race card is an idea, not an actual item, I can make it anything I want. As each card is part of a deck, the size of the entire artwork can expand and contract. Also, this is a project that almost begs for collaboration, something that interests me more and more.
Two years ago I dubbed my art studio in Gowanus Artpoetica, a name that combines two of my passions. I see the space as a place to continue doing my own work, but also as a project space for other artists.
I held the initial exhibition, l’attitude, last October. I asked three visual artists: Jane Swavely, Nancy Lunsford, and Elisabeth Munro Smith to respond to my poem My Broken French, the centerpiece of Identifying the Body. I have another show planned for this April: Said I Meant (a play on the word sediment), will include the work of six artists, including Spencer Merolla who was a Visiting Artist here at BARD last year.
My Poetic Voice
I write poetry in order to see my future. My poetry persona lives several steps ahead of where I live my day to day life. I have infinite faith in what she reveals, and marvel at her ability to tell ugly truths beautifully. I’ve come to recognize a particular state of grace that my poetry comes from, and almost feel like certain poems don’t belong to me. Oddly, I never feel this way about my visual artwork.
I was overjoyed when the editors at The Word Works asked to publish Identifying the Body. Nancy White, the president of the press, told me in our initial conversation that Word Works’ seven editors, who all happen to be women, loved the collection, and wanted to work with me to reorder the poems. I told her I loved that idea, and together we wound up with the final version. What strikes me is how current the poems feel, though they were written five years ago. In this way they preordain the #MeToo Movement. The central questions of the collection lie beyond where #MeToo has so far taken us.
Those questions are: How do women handle their own ‘monstrous’ desires? What does it mean to live a fully dimensional life which must include despair, hatred, lust, grief, shame? Are these black things, or simply unpredictable forces in a life of responsible agency? What might one have to lose, in this world, in order to be most alive?
I’d like to close with the opening poem from Identifying the Body. It begins with a quote from the song I See a Sign, by Sam Amidon:
Loose horse in the valley,
Who is gonna ride him?
I lost my husband because of my big mouth
I used my big mouth to please another man
And pleased he was, for a time. My big mouth
My two black feet, and my two black hands
My oh my, it was grand. Now I’m a loose
Horse in the valley, a filly wild
In the green green green, and nobody’s
Gonna tell me what it should mean. I’m no child
To be schooled, no no no. I won’t be told
What I must do, who I can suck, or fuck
With furious winds whipping my golden
Tail, with blue skies above, and nostrils flared
Earth gives gives gives beneath my hooves