INTERVIEW WITH DEAN RADER
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: “The Fire that Consumes All Before It” feels like an excavation through layers of art and history through its resonances with the Cy Twombly series and of course the Iliad underneath. What significance do those works have for you?
Dean Rader: I love your observation about the poem as excavation. Now that you say that, I do see that it is sort of archeological.
“The Fire that Consumes All Before It” is a response to Twombly’s Fifty Days at Iliam, which is an enormous ten-paneled work of art based on Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s Iliad. So, the paintings are, in a way, a translation of a poet translating another poet who is himself translating into written text something that had only existed orally. In essence, the Twombly work is an engagement of an engagement of an engagement of an engagement—that takes place across time, land and language. I wanted, somehow, to be part of that interactivity. To me, that is one of the great pleasures of art—to enter into conversation with the greatness that precedes you.
The Iliad is also considered one of the earliest sources for ekphrasis, which is the genre of writing about art. There is a fascinating moment in Book 18, where, out of nowhere, Homer stops talking about war and begins to describe in glorious detail the shield of Achilles. I mean it goes on for well over 100 lines. Most scholars point to this passage as the first instance of ekphrasis in Greek poetry. So much of my work engages visual art (in my last book, Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry there are several poems that talk to Paul Klee and his work), it somehow seemed fitting to engage the poem in which ekphrasis pretty much began.
I’m also just fascinated by how a painter represents the textual and how writers represent the visual. We all seem obsessed with each others’ genres! The artist Jordan Kantor is a good friend of mine; he once did an art exhibit completely inside a bookstore. One of my favorite things he ever said to me is, “You are a poet who wants to be on the wall, and I am a painter who wants to be on the shelf.”
RR: We love how the caesura and white space creates formal tension and the lines are scattered across the page. How did you develop the form for this poem?
DR: Thank you. I was trying to render on the page what Twombly had accomplished on canvas. He, too, leaves a lot of white space, a lot of negative space. That blankness coupled with the rectangular shapes of the canvases really evokes the page. The paintings are very bookish. I wanted to recreate that.
Also, those paintings are super active. Ships and weapons and shapes are always in motion. Even words and text seem to be moving intensely from left to right. I aspired for my poem to replicate that movement, that push. I love how Twombly’s paintings feel both chaotic and orderly, like things are a little out of control or in danger of getting there. How awesome if my poem could also feel like it just might go off the rails.
RR: Each section begins with the last phrase of the previous one, making the piece feel interconnected and circular. What ways, if any, do you see this as echoing or playing off other forms and structures in poetry, traditional or otherwise?
DR: To me, Fifty Days at Ilium reads like a book. It is, in Twombly’s words, “a painting in ten parts,” and it really does feel like chapters in a narrative. As I say above, I want my work to mirror his in a variety of ways; thus, my poem also has ten parts, which I think of as “panels.” I like the idea of a poem in panels (rather than sections). And, each of the poem’s ten panels corresponds, either by way of vocabulary or action, to the linear movement of Twombly’s. For example, Twombly’s first “book” or panel is titled The Shield of Achilles, and my first “panel” references the shield. His panel three is Vengeance of Achilles, and panel three of my poem explores the notion of vengeance. Twombly’s fourth panel is Achaens in Battle, and that panel of the poem is pretty fighty. I’m curious if readers will find different ways the poem and the painting interact with each other—correspondences that happen naturally, organically, that I never intended.
Your question about how each panel of my poem begins and ends is a smart one. I was thinking a bit about a sonnet crown. I love how a crown contains a springboard quality. Additionally, as you note, I wanted the panels to feel interconnected, circular. Fifty Days at Iliam hangs in an enclosed room at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and though Twombly definitely lays out his panels in an intentionally linear way, when you are in the room in the museum, the painting itself feels circular—it ends where it began, like a big, cool, scrawly ouroboros. So, too does my poem end where it began.
RR: There are many ways of approaching ekphrasis. Who would you say are your influences here? And do you have any favorite ekphrastic pieces?
DR: I agree. I always tell my students there are an infinite number of ways of thinking about and actually enacting ekphrasis. First, is simply describing the artwork. That is more or less what William Carlos Williams does in his Breughel poems, like “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” To me, these poems are not so interesting, and I try not to do this (or only this) in my Twombly poems. Second is a story or poem spoken from the perspective of someone inside the painting or photograph, as in this cool poem by Keith S. Wilson. Another way to think about ekphrasis is to write as though the artist is talking to us about the painting or sculpture, a kind of persona poem. And yet another is to make your poem a form of art criticism or art theory, a la Wallace Stevens. Maybe the best example is Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” but I also highly recommend Cole Swensen’s collection of ekphrastic poems called Try. I’m jealous of that book. Still another is to use a work of art as a lens for writing about social and political issues, as in Laurie Ann Guerrero’s “Brownies of the Southwest: Troop 704.” Her poem is also a fine example of how engaging with a work of art can also lead to writing about personal politics and questions about identity. I’m also thinking of Louise Erdrich’s phenomenal but relatively unknown “Orozco’s Christ.” Finally, there are poems that use a work of art as a rocket ship to blast into another realm, like this fun poem by Elena Karina Byrne that riffs on John Baldesarri’s Kiss/Panic. My favorite poem in this vein is Jorie Graham’s stunning “The Field,” which makes Anselm Kiefer’s The Order of the Angels even more powerful than it actually is.
In “The Fire that Consumes All before It,” I am working in all of these areas at once. It is a pretty ambitious poem that is also trying to achieve in terms of its sounds what Twombly achieves in terms of color. I would love for this poem to be immersive.
As for influence, I would say that my main influence for this poem is how Twombly engages with poetry. He is always teaching me not just about painting but also about poetry, what makes for a transformative reading experience.
RR: We understand you have published scholarly work on Native American poetry. How does that work interact with your own poetry?
DR: Yes. Aside from visual culture, my main scholarly field is contemporary Indigenous literature. Often those two fields overlap, as in my book Engaged Resistance: American Indian Art, Literature, and Film from Alcatraz to the NMAI. I also write about Indigenous art and even about how Native writers often incorporate both text and image in their work.
There are so many talented Native poets right now. I’d rather read their work and point people to their work than make those concerns the purview of my poetry. However, there are moments when my poems look hard at a few of the issues Indigenous artists and writers are also taking on. For example, I grew up in a small farm town in Oklahoma, and a few of my Oklahoma poems interrogate how systems (and history itself) undermine Indigenous people and values. One example is this poem, which is addressed to my fellow Oklahoman and friend, LeAnne Howe, the celebrated Choctaw writer.
To be sure, spending years reading and writing about Indigenous painting and poetry has given me a myriad of models for how art can, simultaneously, be both celebration and intervention.
Dean Rader’s work in Issue 7.2: