Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with Jayne Guertin
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: The piece “Zn” is an expression through both poetry and visual art. How do you approach the combination of these two forms?
Jayne Guertin: First, I would like to begin this interview by thanking the Rappahannock Review poetry editors for the opportunity to have this conversation with them. It’s my first literary interview, and I’m honored to have this space in which to respond to the questions posed. It took several years of playing with each form before deciding to incorporate image with text. I knew, though, given the source text and my sunflower obsession (which arose—quite subconsciously—concurrent with reading van Gogh’s letters), that I wanted the poems to be visual works. It’s been nearly three years since I wrote the first poem and, at that time and up until very recently, my thoughts about the actual construction of the poems were all over the place. The early poems were one page, layered with color washes and/or textures via various photo processes. I then added a sunflower sketch, which I digitally superimposed onto the poem. But my drawing skills are limited and, thanks to a local farm that plants mammoth sunflowers every spring, I have a vast library of sunflowers images. Working with those images, and not wanting to chain the image so tightly to the poem itself, I decided to present the poems in two pages: the first page, a poem; the second, a sunflower image.
As an aside, when the farm offered allotment gardens, I kept a narrow strip of soil in which to grow vegetables. The following year I planted mammoth sunflowers to photograph, enjoy and ultimately use as visuals. (And, I have to admit, to also converse with.) I’d like to note here that I had no idea how deep and large the roots of sunflowers are and, at the end of one particular season in which the stalks grew enormously thick, I had to saw off the stalk at its narrowest point and then I had the rest taken out by a very kind gentlemen who worked a tractor. Chains were involved, and the irony of that does not escape me. It wasn’t until this past January, when I attended an Art Dialogue workshop, which included a portfolio review, that the idea of marrying image with poetry came up. I presented several of my poems, each side-by-side with a sunflower image—the focus being how to best show the work. The facilitating artists were instrumental in terms of generating ideas, and one of those ideas was to combine the two forms. I was less enthusiastic than the artists, because the photos have a certain presence that the sketches do not, but when I did get around to blending image with poem the result was striking and the response from others was very encouraging.
I hadn’t thought about this before, but your query aroused a feeling of which I may have long subliminally sensed—that this combined form was inevitable, notably so because the letters I am working with were written by van Gogh during the time he lived in Arles, France—his most productive time wherein he painted his famous sunflower series.
RR: Would you say expression through visual art is different than through poetry? Is there one you prefer?
JG: Oh, I love this question as my graduate lecture was about the intersection of writing and photography. Leonardo da Vinci (who experimented with the camera obscura, but was not mentioned in my lecture) famously observed, “Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.” I think what he was articulating is that the multitude of emotions, ideas and meaning an image embodies cannot be replicated with words, while written words evoke mood and meaning that arise from the imagination. Another distinction—relative to the practice of photography—is something of which photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (who was mentioned in my lecture) wrote. The writer, he noted, has the opportunity to reflect, to cull from memory, to revise and to stitch various elements together, even when the mind forgets. But photographers, he said, “deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again. We cannot develop and print a memory.”
In any event, engagement with visual or literary medium is always a multi-sensory experience, and I think art, any art, is boundless, particularly in the sensorial realm. Having said that, I also believe that within the physical realm the experience of observing two or three-dimensional artwork is different; there is an immediate and visceral confrontation with the art that is wholly unlike encountering a poem or other written work. This takes us back to da Vinci’s observation—and how to write about art? This is all to say that it’s difficult for me to differentiate expressive qualities between art and poetry.
RR: Do you think that erasure and blackout poetry is more difficult than writing a poem from scratch? In what way do you approach composition when you’re restricted to the words and punctuation of another text?
JG: Both writing from scratch and working with an existing text are equally challenging. I’ve written several types of poems, including narrative forms, and I labor over every word and fret over every word omitted. This is why I so enjoy working within the constraints of erasure—its very nature sort of directs itself toward a visual form, which opens up so many possibilities. However, for these kinds of poems to be successful, I believe the artist must first understand deeply the meaning of the work that has been appropriated. I think that’s essential. The act itself, of obliterating words, is exciting and freeing. As I go through the process of writing my poems I feel as if the original creator is guiding me through the redactions. I really do! So, no science here, no specific intention, though excising text is a highly intimate operation—one that invariably needs follow-up procedures. (Of course, I am cognizant of the fact that something is happening at the subconscious level.) Erasure challenges, it pushes the boundaries, and forces me to confront what I view as my creative limitations. Erasure demands a closer read, closer look at the borrowed material, and careful distillation—I am in effect creating a kind of portrait from the fragments, and that requires both imagination and reverence, as well as, in my opinion, the preservation of the original work’s essence, it’s truth. In the case of my poetry collection, essence and truth are somewhat abstract; what the poems impart are primarily intangible states of the mind, ethereal expressions of the soul.
RR: How do you choose what images to go with your poetry?
JG: The text is what ordinarily guides me through image selection because I do want, in some way, the image to reflect the content—bound together so there is, ever so slightly, a manifest rapport between the two mediums. When I finally decided to merge the poems with images, I knew immediately that I had the one singular image for Zn: a dead sunflower that says, “Hey, I’m proof that the dead aren’t dead!” The zinc-tinted sunflower was stored in my photo archives and I knew exactly where it lived, so it was an easy retrieval. (Not so with others.) I took the image in early winter, 2016, just after a snowstorm, and everything really did look dead. Most of the images to which the poems are married do not clench so literally to the words. The selection of images is, for the most part, an intuitive process, but there is a lot of trial and error, which is very time consuming. I sometimes have to fetch dozens of photos, trying them out for size, laying each one over the text only to delete the image. So far, I think I’ve been successful with the task of coupling. But, I’ve yet to complete the collection.
RR: What are you reading right now?
JG: I recently ransacked my father’s old books from the library wall he built when I was very young. He was an English teacher and an avid reader so he left a voluminous collection of books. Some of them actually have old library stamps on the flip side of the covers. I’m now reading three of those books, all of them collections. The first, Essays Old and New, edited by Robert Jameson which is, I discovered when I later cracked it open, a reading guide for students—the end of each story is followed by two sections: “Studying the Essay” and “Composition Topics.” The essays are classics and include writings from Thoreau, Emerson, Montaigne, E. B. White (one of my favorites), Rachel Carson, and many more. The other two books are Prize Stories 1976, The O. Henry Awards, edited by William Abrahams—a marvelous compilation of stories from the likes of Alice Adams, Harold Brodkey, Patricia Griffith, Anne Halley, Josephine Jacobson, Joyce Carol Oates, John Sales and more (I appreciate that women writers were so well represented in this 1976 volume); and, Short Stories I, edited by Virginia Alwin, which has a charming contents page that couples stories by theme and includes a headline for each pair, such as: We meet unusual heroes in: RIKKI-TIKKI- TAVI, and THE MILK PICTURE. The book also turns out to be a reading guide. I guess I’m feeling like I need a literary refresher.
Jayne Guertin’s work appears in Issue 5.2 here.