the chapbook interview: Jennifer Franklin on myth, autism, and pedagogy

JenniferFranklinLooming

The myth of Demeter and Persephone is such a rich story to retell, a task taken up by other poets such as Louise Gluck, Alicia Ostriker, Rita Dove, and others. Talk about your interests in myth and why the Homeric Hymn to Demeter was particularly evocative and inspirational to your work.

Although I knew that poets have explored the Persephone and Demeter myth for centuries, it was the story to which I kept returning when I sat down to transform my grief about my daughter’s illness into poems. The use of myth in literature has always fascinated me. When I was a child, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology was a crucial book for the development of my imagination. In high school, The Iliad and The Odyssey were two of my favorite texts, and as an undergraduate, one of my first classes was a comparative literature course devoted to a semester long exploration of James Joyce’s Ulysses and Literary Theory. Louise Gluck, my favorite living poet, used the Persephone and Demeter Myth to great effect in Averno. The power of the complex and all-consuming love depicted in the myth is universal. Gluck, Rita Dove, another influence (Thomas & Beulah was the model for my undergraduate thesis), and Laurie Sheck all wrote full-length collections using the Persephone & Demeter myth within a few years of each other. Gluck’s Averno, Sheck’s The Willow Grove, and Dove’s Mother Love were all seminal collections for me and although I did not go back to read them when I decided to write my series, I know that they inform the poems in the collection because of the impact they had on me in my twenties before I became a mother and felt the power of the myth even more strongly. All three include Persephone’s sexuality as a central component of their retelling of the story. As a feminist and a reader, I am interested in that part of the myth, but it is not one that I chose to tackle directly in my appropriation. I focus on Demeter’s suffering in response to Persephone’s suffering as well as the “loss” of her life as she knew it, which includes her loss of freedom.

I recently re-read Gregory Orr’s thoughts on the use of myth in lyric poetry, and I agree with his thesis that one of the things that continues to compel poets to retell myths or to use myth to tell their own stories is that our collective consciousness already knows the “plot” and the poet can hone in on the aspects of the myth that are most relevant to the poets’ individual messages. As both a mother and as a writer, one of the most painful things about my daughter’s autism is that she cannot use language to express how she feels and what she thinks. As an empathic person, the thing that hurts me most is the extent of my daughter’s suffering because of her autism and epilepsy. As much as I try to imagine the lives and emotions of others (I am a fan of reading and writing persona poems) I did not want to imagine her interior world. Even though I believe that one never “knows” another “person” or the multiple and layered selves and personas that make up a “person” (we are lucky if we ever really know ourselves), one of the great tragedies of autism is that the afflicted person is in many ways even more “unknowable.” These poems were written towards the end of a long grieving process. I would argue that the process of writing the poems was the greatest tool in achieving understanding of the nuanced feelings surrounding my “loss.”

In your poems “My Herculaneum” and “The Tulips are Dying” and others, you bury the turn and revelation halfway through the poem. In these poems it’s the revelation of grief that turns. Can you talk about your sense of the placement and power of the poetic turn?

That is a very interesting observation. I was not aware of how often the turn resides in the middle of the poems in Persephone’s Ransom. I find it particularly interesting given the prevailing notion, in criticism, that the turn is the center or the soul of the poem. When I was reading about mid-course turns, I discovered that most often they represent drastic or sharp shifts in meaning. I believe that most of the turns in my chapbook are “retrospective-prospective” turns that examine the past and the present/future. I believe that this was the unconscious choice that I made while writing most of the poems in this series because the before and the after that I am describing in the poems are so jarringly different. There is an urgency, a need to get to the heart of the matter—on which all of these poems rest—the devastating recognition that nothing is ever going to be the same again. These poems, which were written in a great burst over one month in the summer of 2008, while riding in the back seat of my daughter’s “bus” on the way to pick her up from her year-round school, are essentially elegies for the loss of the “normal” lives that I knew neither of us would be able to have. Although no one literally dies in the pages of Persephone’s Ransom, there are hundreds of figurative deaths. To me, the turn is always a crucial part of the poem, no matter where it is placed, since it is where the most important ideas or revelations appear.

Your chapbook and forthcoming book address via myth the emotional impact autism has on a family. Were there other literary sources that enabled you to consider how a writer might make art of grief?

My beliefs on the power of lyric poetry are similar to those of Gregory Orr, as he presents them in the critical work Poetry as Survival. Lyric poetry contains an abiding power to transform deep experience into something transcendent. Some of the most important books for me have been works of art and literature that center of the exploration of great emotion, including deep suffering. When I was a New Jersey Scholar in the summer program at The Lawrenceville School, my poetry teacher, Clayton Marsh, sparked a love of Keats that has continued to this day. When I was in college, my mentor, Arnold Weinstein, a great humanist and scholar, taught all my favorite classes. The first class I took with him was called, “Exile and the Conditions of Writing.” The entire course focused on poets who were literally or figuratively exiled. We read poets including Tu Fu, Dickinson, Ovid, Nelly Sachs and Paul Celan, Baudelaire, and Anna Akhmatova. What I love most about Dickinson’s poetry is that she plumbs the great depths of human emotion in all of its authentic forms. Nothing is taboo or off limits; every emotion is given its due. That course was a master class in the power of poetry to give voice to deep suffering. Some of the modernist novels of Woolf, Faulkner, and Jean Rhys have influenced me a great deal. The plays of Sophocles and Ibsen, especially Antigone and Little Eyolf, also informed my idea of how the topic of suffering can be transformed into literature. The contemporary poets who influenced Persephone’s Ransom and my project of transforming my grief into something more are: Mary Jo Bang (particularly her book Elegy), Marie Howe (especially What the Living Do), and Emily Fragos (Little Savage), as well as the work of Jane Kenyon, Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, and Sylvia Plath. Perhaps, the most powerful example I know of a writer devoted to transforming his grief into song is Miklos Radnoti. In 1946, when his wife found his body, which had been exhumed from a mass grave, she retrieved a notebook that contained all of the poems he wrote during his imprisonment in a work camp in Yugoslavia. Surviving prisoners smuggled copies of his poems out of the various camps in which he was interned, but the five he wrote in his last days of the death march before he was shot were unknown, until his wife found them in his pocket.

Another book that I think is a masterpiece of transforming pain into poetry is Black Aperture by Matt Rasmussen. It won the Walt Whitman Award from The Academy of American Poetry and was published after Persephone’s Ransom, so it did not influence my collection but I teach it in my classes. I think that it’s a very brave book. It looks at a bother’s tragic suicide from different perspectives, and it grapples with how one goes on living after the unthinkable has occurred. As the philosopher Heidegger wrote, “The Terrible has already happened.” I have read excerpts from Edward Hirsch’s long poem Gabriel about the death of his only child, but I am planning to teach it to my students this autumn. I have always admired his poetry, and I have read several reviews of the book. In the interview on NPR, he said something that resonated with me: “One of the things that happens to everyone who is grief-stricken . . . is there comes a time when everyone else just wants you to get over it, but of course you don’t get over it. You get stronger; you try and live on; you endure; you change; but you don’t get over it. You carry it with you.” This is something that I experienced as well. I suspect that only people who are willing to authentically mourn are able to prevail.

Like Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris, flowers in Persephone’s Ransom speak in ways that humans in the collection cannot speak. Talk about the use of flowers as a trope in your poetry.

Like Gluck, who has said that she was shy and withdrawn from her peers as a child and that she regarded Blake and Keats as her friends, I felt the same way about writers I admired. I was a year and a half younger than everyone else in my grade, and my social skills had not caught up with my reading ability. I spent most of my childhood with family or alone reading books. My mother had a garden she loved and tended that I always admired, but it wasn’t until I read The Wild Iris that I wanted to plant my own garden. Having lived in Providence and New York City most of my adult life, this posed a challenge but for two years, I lived in a house in Central Massachusetts. It was there, for the year and a half before I became pregnant, that I planted my garden. I visited Emily Dickinson’s home and toured her gardens that are restored to include all of the flowers she planted in her lifetime. I bought her herbarium and poured over it as well as a book on flowers and their meanings. Tulips have always been my favorite flower and I planted hundreds of bulbs in the autumn before my pregnancy. So, those flowers and the loss of them when I returned to the city before my daughter was born were inextricably linked to all of the losses surrounding my daughter’s illness. Demeter’s long depression during which she wanted to stop the beauty of the world by turning it to winter is something that resonated with me. I am always struck by natural beauty, during times of tragedy, and how shocking and jarring that disconnect is. It seems to make the pain all the more palpable. When people recount their escapes on 9/11, many of them talk about the stunning beauty of the weather that day. In almost all of the accounts I have read about life in Auschwitz, the survivors mention the shocking natural beauty of the place. Something in us wants life, wants beauty so much that when we are propelled into the tragic, we cannot connect the two. The life cycle of nature is something to which I have been attuned since I was a small child. Growing up in the suburbs, I often read under a special crabapple tree that has long since been cut down to make first a soccer field and then a lacrosse field. My mother, a great seasonal decorator, marked the months and seasons with care.

Flowers in my chapbook represent all the beauty of the natural world as well as everything constant, unchanging, permanent in the uncertainty of our great cosmos. They also represent God’s presence as well as the power of the human soul to look in the face of great suffering and great pain and choose life, to choose beauty. Their seeming fragility and delicacy—their improbability to survive the elements is a constant source of inspiration to me. The snowdrops in the fields, the bulbs that emerge from the ground in spring, even after the most brutal winter, mirror the human will to continue against adversity. Thoreau wrote, “the most attractive thing about flowers is their beautiful reserve.” In cultures throughout the world, flowers represent love and my daughter loves looking at them and even labeling them and their colors. One of the things for which I am most grateful, despite my daughter’s autism is that she is able to show love and affection for me, my family, and for her teachers. She is deeply intuitive, and she knows who loves her and who does not. With people she doesn’t love, she is very reserved. The use of flowers in the collection began with the myth—Persephone was picking flowers when she was abducted. I then began thinking of the flowers as the loss of innocence. The way Demeter turns on the flowers in her grief and anger represents the rejection of life in the initial stages of shock and trauma.

 

What is inspiring you these days?

The autumn has always been my most creative season for writing poetry so I am working on several new pieces for both a chapbook and my second collection. I am putting my syllabus together and reading the new collections by Mary Ruefle and Louise Gluck. Other literature and art are always my greatest sources of inspiration. I just saw Cate Blanchet in Jean Genet’s The Maids and I have been seeing many dance performances this summer. Yesterday, a friend and I saw a fantastic exhibit called “Strong Language” by Mel Bochner at the Jewish Museum. It’s particularly fascinating for people interested in language because most of the paintings in the show consist entirely of words—a list of synonyms compiled from Roget’s Thesaurus. One of my students, Gillian Cummings, shared a draft of her forthcoming chapbook that is based on Ophelia. The power of her language and the homage to, as well as the departure from, Shakespeare deeply impressed me. I cannot wait for it to be published and to reach its audience.

How are you trying to get better as a poet?

I believe, as Mary Oliver instructs in her book, A Poetry Handbook, that one only becomes a better poet by being a copious reader, especially a reader of other poetry. I am also listening to poets reading their own work. Thanks to The Poetry Foundation, poets.org, and YouTube, one has access to thousands of recorded poems. My uncle has been listening to Eliot on his iPod while walking in the countryside of Southwest France, where he lives. After he mentioned that to me, I started listening to Eliot again, and it is truly mesmerizing. Listening to poets read can be even more useful than reading. It helps to train the ear to focus on the language, each word. During the summer, I taught books by Gluck, Szybist, Fragos, Merwin, Seshadri, and Rasmussen, and we all wrote a poem inspired by the collections we were reading. The fascinating thing is that although we could all see the influence of the target poet on our work, we were still writing our own voice. The students came in with attributions, “after W.S. Merwin” and by the end of class, more often than not, we had voted to remove those attributions. It is always exciting to see growth and change in the work of one’s students and colleagues as well as in one’s own. I am lucky to be part of a weekly workshop with some of my colleagues at The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center. Their work inspires me and their feedback has been invaluable to the revision of my new work.

Your chapbook credo: Good things come in small packages. No book is more beautiful than a handmade letterpress chapbook.

Number of chapbooks you own: I own about 70 chapbooks. Most of them were published by Slapering Hol Press (designed by the amazing Ed Reyher of Swamp Press in Northfield, Massachusetts) where I have been co-editor since January 2014. Other chapbooks in my collection date from my first semester in college; these were all published by Burning Deck Press in Providence, founded and run by Rosemarie & Keith Waldrop. I had never heard of a chapbook before I was enrolled in my first poetry workshop at Brown. The teacher, a graduate student in the MFA program, put the chapbook My Name Happens Also by Elizabeth Robinson on the syllabus. I was stunned when I went to the bookstore to buy it and saw the artistry of the design of these limited edition collections. Many of my chapbooks are signed copies of those written by friends and students. Still others were purchased at AWP, readings, and the annual CUNY chapbook fair. Although I sometimes have to sell books at The Strand or give books away to friends because I live in an apartment, I have never parted with any of my chapbooks.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: I think that I’ve read over one hundred published chapbooks and hundreds of chapbook manuscripts.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I am co-editor of Slapering Hol Press, the small press imprint of The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center, a chapbook publisher; we publish two chapbooks per year and host readings for emerging poets. One chapbook is selected through a national competition for poets who have yet to publish a chapbook or a full-length collection. The other chapbook is a “Conversation” between an established woman poet and an emerging woman poet chosen by the former. I also help emerging poets and students edit, revise, and order their chapbook manuscripts. So far, I have written blurbs for two chapbook poets and have been asked to write blurbs for two more.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: I use my chapbook earnings to buy more of my chapbooks to sell at readings, and whatever is left—I spend on entry fees for book awards.

Your chapbook wish: I am currently working on collaboration with the amazing self-taught photographer, Arnaldo Reyes. He is from the Dominican Republic and has been my daughter’s bus driver for the past six years. His other job is delivering specialty cookies all over Brooklyn and Manhattan so he sees the people of the city—really sees them—the way Marie Howe instructs us all to do. He shows me his photographs each week and I write ekphrastic poems for the ones that speak to me. Sometimes, I see something and write a poem and then he takes a photograph that literally or figuratively matches what he believes to be the intention of the piece. It can be difficult to get poems published beside other art forms, which seems particularly archaic in 2014, when technology and multidisciplinary art is so prevalent. I hope that we find a press for this chapbook soon.

Residence: I live in New York City.

Six_Portraits Julie Danho

Job: I teach at The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center in Sleepy Hollow. We own a beautiful restored train station and it’s a wonderful place for our community of writers of all ages, from all walks of life, to come together to help each other become better in our craft. It is a supportive environment for writers at every stage of his or her career. I love teaching poetry workshops; I feel like it’s what I was born to do. I am blessed to be working with such interesting, talented, and inspiring students. I can’t wait to read their new poems and spend two hours with them in class each week.

Chapbook education: I was first introduced to the concept of chapbooks in college but my real education came from working with Margo Taft Stever and Peggy Ellsberg, my wonderful co-editors. Margo founded HVWC in 1988, and she has been supporting emerging writers since then. She began Slapering Hol Press in 1990, and while I helped her copy edit Seven New Generation African Poets box set, in collaboration with The Poetry Foundation Poets of the World Series, Prairie Schooner, and African Poetry Book Fund, she shared her vast knowledge of the importance of continuity and theme in writing and arranging a chapbook.

Jennifer Franklin concentrated in English and Creative Writing at Brown University. She was the Harvey Baker Fellow at Columbia University School of the Arts where she received her MFA. Her poems debuted in the Paris Review’s “Ten New Poets” issue #141. Her first full-length collection, Looming, won the 14th Annual Editor’s Prize from Elixir Press and will be published in January 2015. Her poetry has appeared widely in anthologies, literary magazines, and journals such as Antioch Review, Boston Review, Gettysburg Review, Guernica, The Nation, New England Review, Pequod, poets.org, Poetry Daily, Salmagundi, Southwest Review, Western Humanities Review. Her chapbook, Persephone’s Ransom (Finishing Line Press) was published in September 2011. Her work has been translated into Romanian and Portuguese. A selection of her poetry is featured in Andrew Solomon’s award winning book, Far From the Tree. Franklin is co-editor of Slapering Hol Press, the small press imprint of The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center. She teaches poetry workshops and seminars at The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center and lives in New York City. Her website is jenniferfranklinpoetry.com and she can be reached at jenniferfranklinpoetry@gmail.com

Women Write Resistance at the Omaha Lit Fest

I hope you’ll join us at the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest for a Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence Anthology Reading with Leslie Adrienne Miller, Sara Henning, Laura Madeline Wiseman, and Jennifer Perrine

SATURDAY NIGHT, September 13, 7 pm
The Apollon, 1801 Vinton St
Omaha, NE 68108

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About the Anthology and Event:

Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013), edited by Laura Madeline Wiseman, views poetry as a transformative art. By deploying techniques to challenge narratives about violence against women and making alternatives to that violence visible, the over one hundred American poets in Women Write Resistance intervene in the ways gender violence is perceived in American culture. Indeed, these poets resist for change by revising justice and framing poetry as action. This Omaha Lit Fest reading will include an introduction by the editor and feature several Women Write Resistance poets who will read their poems and others from Women Write Resistance.

About the Poets:

sara henning

Sara Henning is the author of A Sweeter Water (Lavender Ink, 2013)as well as a chapbook, To Speak of Dahlias (Finishing Line Press, 2012).  Her poetry, fiction, interviews and book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as Willow Springs, Bombay Gin and the Crab Orchard Review.  Currently a doctoral student in English and Creative Writing at the University of South Dakota, she serves as Managing Editor for The South Dakota Review.

Jennifer Perrine is the author of The Body Is No Machine (New Issues), winner of the 2008 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Poetry, and In the Human Zoo (University of Utah Press), recipient of the 2010 Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize. In 2014, she will serve as a member of the U.S. Arts and Culture Delegation to Cuba. Perrine teaches in the English department and directs the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Drake University.

Leslie Adrienne Miller is author of six collections of poetry including Y, The Resurrection Trade and Eat Quite Everything You See from Graywolf Press, and Yesterday Had a Man in It, Ungodliness, and Staying Up For Love from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Professor of English at the University of Saint Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota, she holds a Ph.D. from the University of Houston, an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, an M.A. from the University of Missouri, and a B.A. from Stephens College.

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Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of more than a dozen books and chapbooks and the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her recent books are American Galactic (Martian Lit Books, 2014), Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience (Lavender Ink, 2014), Queen of the Platform (Anaphora Literary Press, 2013), Sprung (San Francisco Bay Press, 2012), and the collaborative book Intimates and Fools (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014) with artist Sally Deskins. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Margie, Mid-American Review, and Feminist Studies. www.lauramadelinewiseman.com

collaborative artist interview: Lauren Rinaldi on the beautiful body

LR

You grew up in Brooklyn and Lancaster County, PA. What was that like? How did it influence your desire to be an artist?

I moved from Brooklyn to Lancaster County, PA when I was around twelve years old, it was a little difficult transitioning from diverse city life to living in a small suburban town with Amish buggies driving by. I was able to assimilate, though, consciously dropping my Brooklyn accent and making plenty of friends. But, I did feel like I was always studying everybody – their mannerisms, culture, speech, families, homes and interactions. I think my desire to be an artist comes from more of a need to process what I observe and experience and make something with it and show it to somebody. Like, this is what I’m seeing, but it’s hard to verbalize it, do you see it, too? Do you feel like this, too? It’s like a need for reassurance, I think.

Who were the artists you admired when you first started making art?

When I was younger, mostly old masters and then modern masters, I found their lives fascinating. In college I was introduced to female and feminist artists and that opened up a whole new world for me. Studying artists like Hannah Wilke, Janine Antoni, Cindy Sherman and Tracy Emin just to name a few, influenced the direction of my work when I was beginning to paint. They gave me permission, in a sense, to put my life into my art, to use the female body and work with my own body.

How do you start a new series—with a theme, an image, a question or with a material, a technique, a color? Or something else?

The female body has always been a constant in my paintings and drawings and everything I make stems from the relationships between the body, the self and the viewer. My work tends to evolve as these three components of it change and respond to each other. For example, most recently I’ve been thinking about the way women choose to portray themselves and their bodies in what I like to call the age of digital narcissism, with self applied filters and crops, where private moments are made public and where our self worth is often measured in numbers of likes. These ideas have been reflected in my latest body of work along with my own personal narratives and how I fit into this landscape of carefully curated projected identities.

 You teach yoga, correct? How does your teaching of yoga impact your work?

Yes! I am a certified yoga teacher and have been teaching for the past few years. Taking the time to just be a person, moving and breathing in your body is such a beautiful thing and the practice impacts so much of my life. Yoga is work, it’s patience, it’s showing up every single day and not being attached to the results. I take that discipline to the studio by showing up whenever I can, even if I don’t feel like it, even if I end up painting over everything and starting over. When I sequence the classes I teach I work with layers, I gradually stretch and strengthen areas and work towards a potential peak posture – sometimes the students get there, sometimes they don’t and sometimes they discover something better along the way. I like to work like that on my paintings, set up foundations and framework, move towards a goal, but maybe end up somewhere else, and be ok with that.

 How does motherhood inspire your work? Do you create art with your child? What’s that like?

I made a lot of self-portraits while I was pregnant and a new mother, I think it helped me to accept the changes in my body and manage the fears about the changes in my life. My son is almost seven now and we make art together all of the time. Sometimes I bring him to my studio and set him up with an easel and paint, we draw and color together, I bring him to community paint days where we can work on murals together and I’m constantly taking him to museums, art markets and gallery openings – art is something that is always incorporated in our lives. It’s so important, especially since he does not have an art program at his school.

Were you ever scared to experiment in art?

The anxiety and fear that comes with constantly putting myself outside of my comfort zone is usually worth the growth. I ask myself what’s the worst that can happen? Maybe somebody won’t like it? If art were easy and always palatable it would be boring, so I have to experiment and accept that there will always be criticism and that’s a good thing.

What do you think is at stake when people make art that challenged notions about the female form?

It’s hard to say. There’s always an unrealistic standard of beauty that women put pressure on themselves to live up to. When I was younger thin was in, emaciated models were the ideal and then there were artists like Jenny Saville juxtaposing that with her massive fleshy paintings and Lisa Yuskavage painting her erotic impossibly voluptuous women. Now, we have ad campaigns like Dove Real Beauty celebrating what “real” women look like, standing in their underwear together smiling. It’s such a strange thing. Women are expected to have big round asses, muscular arms and legs, tiny waists, young skin, perky breasts – the laundry list of attributes to qualify as beautiful keeps growing and is confusing and unattainable. Work that responds to these notions is important and is an ongoing conversation that needs to be had – I think women need it and I think they connect with it.

With a young child, is it difficult to balance family life with making art?

Yes, it’s very difficult. I feel like everything I do is packed into time slots where I’m constantly shifting my focus all day every day. My son and his needs are always my top priority, though, so other things often get pushed on the back burner. I am extremely lucky to have a supportive partner… and I drink a lot of coffee J

 

 What is inspiring you these days?

Life, love, other artists, yoga, talking to friends, binge watching shows on Netflix, binge reading series’ of books, people watching, anything that gets me out of my own head for a chunk of time inspires me.

How are you trying to get better as an artist? I try to draw or paint almost every day and to see as much artwork as I can.

Number of art pieces you own: Not enough.

Number of art pieces you admire: Too many to count!

Ways you promote and serve other artists: I attend other artists’ openings and events as much as I can and, of course, I use social media to share work I admire and other artists’ events and work – it’s such a great tool.

Where you spend your art earnings: Normal boring life stuff like bills, groceries, etc.

Your artist wish: It would be nice to support myself financially with my artwork some day, but for now I’m just grateful to do what I love and be able to devote myself to my family, too.

Residence: Philadelphia, PA

Job: Artist, mural artist assistant, yoga teacher, mother

Education: BFA in painting, Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia

Bio: I was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1983 and moved to Lancaster County, PA with my family in 1994. I received my BFA in painting from Tyler School of art in 2006. I am currently living and working in Philadelphia with my husband, son and cat. My work, paintings and drawings focusing on the female body, is represented by Paradigm Gallery + Studio. I am also a trained muralist and certified yoga teacher.

 fatal effects in the hands of artist Lauren Rinaldi

the chapbook interview: Julie Danho on the punctuation of poetry

Julie Danho photo

I love your use of punctuation as titles in Six Portraits. You open your chapbook with the epigraph from Jennifer DeVere Brody, “Punctuation marks can serve as both sense and sensibility—as the most human element in certain sentences,” an epigraph that speaks to the tension you create in your poems as you consider issues of family and love. Talk about your interests in punctuation and poetics.

I’ve been working as a copywriter since I finished my MFA, so now I’m more of a grammar and punctuation geek than ever before. Punctuation is so often used incorrectly, but its use—and misuse—can have a tremendous impact on a sentence’s meaning. I always thought of each mark as having its own identity, and these poems were a way of exploring that. I found the “.” poem the most difficult to write because the period is really the king of punctuation. All the other punctuation marks in the book (except the parentheses) are visually derived from the period, and the “.” poem is about the struggle of coping with power. I placed each of the six punctuation poems with two other thematically related poems to create the six portraits in the title of the book. For example, the “.” poem is in a portrait with two other poems about “stops,” or, specifically, deaths: “When the First Father Dies,” and “On Seeing the Bag of John Lennon’s Bloody Clothes.” But it’s not quite as morbid a portrait as it may sound!

Six_Portraits Julie Danho
Jeffrey Hecker’s chapbook Hornbook and Katrina Vandenberg’s book The Alphabet Not Unlike the End of the World look at the shape typography makes of letters, much like the work you’re doing in your poems “?” and “!”. Likewise, some of the poems in Six Portraits move from the ekphrasis to wonder why and how art was made. Can you talk about your dazzling impulse to approach punctuation as art?

“?” was the first punctuation poem that I wrote, and it was actually inspired by a book that Melissa Khoury, a close friend who is a graphic designer, was writing about typography. Her book explored the history of each letter’s visual representation, and she photographed letters in unusual circumstances, including a “y” frozen in an ice cube. I loved the idea, and I started looking at punctuation in a similar light. Many of my other poems take art as a starting point, so the idea of looking at the question mark as an art object makes sense, although I don’t think it was a deliberate move at the time. In the book, I placed the “?” poem with two poems about art pieces—both of which question whether a work actually is art—to create the first “portrait” of the book. While none of the other punctuation poems focus as explicitly on art, “!” and “,” both also play on the punctuation’s shape. I tried to give each punctuation mark its own persona, and some of the later poems focus more on the use of the punctuation mark than its look.

 

Many of the poems in Six Portraits address issues of grief and loss, joining the rich tradition of poets writing of these issues, such as Emily Dickinson’s “I measure every Grief I meet” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” Were you ever scared to write about such topics?

Absolutely. But I was actually much more anxious about showing the poems to the people I’d written about over the years. About a half hour after I received the incredible news that Slapering Hol was publishing my chapbook, I realized that I had to show some of my friends and family the poems I’d been keeping from them. Many of the poems in Six Portraits about grief aren’t about my own losses. Instead, they’re about the helplessness I feel—that so many of us feel—when someone we love is grieving the loss of a child or parent. And, of course, we can’t help but fear that grief coming to our own door. It ended up being a really good thing to have those conversations with the people I’d written about. They liked the poems, and I felt that I’d said something to them in print that I wasn’t great at expressing in person.

Let’s talk press and publication. Do your poems, in their final form, turn out the way you want them when they reach the readers’ hand on the printed page of the book? How does the form of the book constrain or free your poetic expression?

Because a lot of the poems in Six Portraits are about art, the way the book looked was really important to me. I’d always imagined the cover of my first book being Bombshell, this incredible sculpture by the artist E.V. Day. Made of fishing line, turnbuckles, and fabric, the sculpture looks like Marilyn Monroe’s white dress blowing up in The Seven-Year Itch—if Marilyn Monroe’s dress had exploded. My poem, also titled Bombshell, is shaped to look like the sculpture. I had first seen the work in The Wexner Center for the Arts on the Ohio State campus, but it’s now owned by the Whitney Museum. Margo Stever, co-editor of Slapering Hol, was tremendous in working with E.V. Day to get permission to use the image, which E.V. Day graciously donated.

A lot of the poems in the book have long lines, so the book’s designer—Ed Rayher of Swamp Press—put it in a landscape format that complemented the book’s structure. It’s beautiful, which I can say because I definitely can’t take any credit for it. Slapering Hol is known for putting out lovely chapbooks. So I’d say my poetic expression was freed in ways I never dared expect.

Given that you’ve just had a first chapbook released from Slapering Hol Press, what’s the influence of performing your poems on your writing—does the anticipation of reading or giving readings influence how your work appears on the page?

When I’m trying to decide if a poem is finished, I sometimes ask myself if I’d choose it over other poems to read in front of an audience. If I wouldn’t, the poem either might not be done or it might not be worth finishing. But I also have poems that I just think work better on the page. For example, the punctuation poems in Six Portraits play with how the layout of the poem relates to the punctuation mark, so I do think they come across differently when read aloud.

What is inspiring you these days? How are you trying to get better as a poet?

I always find reading the work of other poets to be inspiring. If I’m in a writing slump, I often realize that I haven’t been reading enough poetry. I also find that being a spectator for other arts—whether by going to an art museum, the ballet, or the theater (all of which I love)—can also help me come up with new ideas. I’m trying to get better as a poet by working more steadily. I believe much more in writing every day rather than waiting for inspiration, but it can be difficult to do with a family and a full-time job. I’ve been better about it this year than I have in a long time, and I find I’m enjoying that time more than ever. My husband, David O’Connell, is also a poet, and he’s an amazing editor. So I’m really lucky to get help with my poems without even leaving the house.

Your chapbook credo: A shorter format offers room to experiment.

Number of chapbooks you own: About 30

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: Probably around 50

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I support other chapbook poets by buying their work, going to readings, and lending their wonderful chapbooks to other readers. My favorite chapbook to promote is A Better Way to Fall, which is a great collection by my husband David O’Connell.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: I bought a slice of my favorite Russian Tea Cake, a cappuccino, and some extra copies of my chapbook to sell at readings.

Your chapbook wish: That more people appreciate this unique book format

Residence: Providence, Rhode Island

Job: Copywriter/Editor

Chapbook education: I actually learned a lot by losing chapbook contests. My first attempts were more of a collection of my best work than a cohesive, thematic chapbook. I read the chapbooks that did win and realized how to put a chapbook together. One of my favorites was Character Readings by Bern Mulvey, which won the 2011 Copperdome Chapbook Award.

Chapbook Bio: Julie Danho’s chapbook, Six Portraits, won the 2013 Slapering Hol Press Chapbook Competition. Her poems and essays have appeared in Barrow StreetMid-American ReviewWest BranchSouthern Poetry Review, and Bellingham Review, among other journals. She received an M.F.A. from Ohio State University and has been awarded fellowships in poetry from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. You can reach her at jdanho@hotmail.com or juliedanho.weebly.com.

 

 

 

 

the chapbook interview with Gillian Cummings on deep inner silence

Petals as an Offering in Darkness, your newest chapbook from Finishing Line Press, opens with “Entreaty”, an evocative, startling first poem. It gave me pleasurable chills to read it—my own personal mark of an exceptional poem. In her contribution to the interview feature on poets.orgHow Do You Begin a Poem?”, Evie Shockley writes on beginnings, “There is a fullness in my mind, a crowding and jostling and rumbling of ideas, outrages, phrases, and images….” Talk about openings. How do you begin your poems and begin your chapbooks? How do you open the door of your work to invite the reader inside?

Thank you, Madeline, for calling the poem “Entreaty” exceptional. That poem was the second poem I wrote for the small collection that wound up being Petals as an Offering in Darkness. About openings: I don’t know if I knowingly open a poem or the poem opens me or opens in me. There is something very mysterious about it. I guess I would have to say that when a poem is beginning, I hear—out of the wind blowing through a meadow or out of the sound of cello music, out of a nowhere, so to speak, that is a somewhere—I begin to hear rhythms under rhythms and the rhythms then accrue words to match their stresses. Only later do meanings emerge. This poem “Entreaty,” though—I knew a little what I wanted from it to begin with, which is like cheating for me. Because the first poem I wrote for this chapbook was the last poem, “Recantation,” a poem containing the command “Take life,” meaning “take life away,” I knew I wanted to write a poem that would counterbalance “Recantation” with affirmation. So the “Give,” that first word of “Entreaty,” came immediately.

Reading your prayer poems in Petals, I felt inspired to write a prayer—thank you for that! What inspires you? What inspired you to write this lovely chapbook full of nature and place, longing and questioning?

I am so happy that you felt inspired to write after reading the chapbook! What inspired me to write that chapbook? That is a hard question to answer. I think it came down, basically, to the title of Anne Sexton’s book Live or Die. There was a poem that never made it into my chapbook that began, “When the fear of death is equal to the fear of life, /O God, I walk through the rooms I have walked through/for ten years, and the rooms pretend they don’t know me.” I was writing those poems at a time in my life when I was secretly miserable. I tried hard not to show my husband or my friends—anyone—what was happening inside me, but I really didn’t know how I was managing to survive. There is a quote from The Cloud of Unknowing, a very old treatise by an anonymous monk on how to merge with God—for lack of a better way to express the unnameable—and the quote goes like this: “And yet in all this, never does [she] desire to not be, for this is the devil’s madness and blasphemy against God…. At the same time, however, [she] desires unceasingly to be freed from the knowing and feeling of [her] being.” That quote expresses another aspect of the longing to die; there is a longing for what some call “the death of the small self,” a longing not for the ultimate end of the body but for some experience of enlightenment. I had that in me, too, not enlightenment, but a desire for it, this small seed of hope that there could be something greater. I think that is why all the poems in Petals are addressed to an unknown “God.”

Anne Sexton is one of my favorite poets, one of the first poets who gave me access into poetry, perhaps because of her close attention to the gendered experience of being female. Your chapbook Spirits of the Humid Cloud published by Dancing Girl Press opens with an evocative epigraph on that luminous place between girlhood and womanhood, being a girl and being a woman, and suggests a third space. Talk about how gender informs your poetry.

When I first started to write poems, I never thought of them as being informed by gender. I just wrote what I wrote out of necessity, though I had read writers like Sexton and Plath at that time. Then, years ago now, I read Larissa Szporluk’s Dark Sky Question and I entered this very mysterious world she created that somehow managed to recreate trauma in a way that seemed markedly feminine and both vague and visceral at the same time. I consider her to be a huge influence on the work I have done recently. And I should mention, that though my chapbook Petals as an Offering in Darkness was published later than Spirits of the Humid Cloud, the writing that forms the chapbook Spirits was written after the prayer-poems of Petals and is much more characteristic of the recent work I’ve been doing. These days, often, I need to write using the pronoun “she.” There are some things too difficult for me to approach directly and claim as my own experience.

 

There are many women poets who have written about nature like May Swenson, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Bradfield and many wonderful nature poems. Both of your chapbooks approach nature. What writers and literary sources enabled you to consider how a writer might make nature a troupe in poetry?

Oh, since very early on in my life, Keats’ “To Autumn” has been a favorite poem of mine. To me, it seems like a perfect poem and I often think, “If only I could write something that beautiful!” Very old-fashioned of me, right? But I am a little old-fashioned in some ways. And then there is Robert Hass: I love the way his poems manage to be so specific about landscape, how he will not say “bird” or “jay”—it has to be “Steller’s jay.” I think I sound so stupid saying this, because it is such an obvious characteristic of his work, but after reading him for the first time, I felt I must try to be as accurate as possible when naming plants and animals. Though I do love thinking of them as “Nature’s People,” as Dickinson calls them.

 

In the January/February 2014 issue of Poets & Writers, Celia Johnson examines the walking habits of Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, William Wordsworth and more in her essay “Pedestrian Adventures: Walking to Inspiration.” She argues that exercise promotes creativity as it lessens anxiety. Given your focus on nature and the careful descriptions of the natural world in your poetry, do you spend time in nature exercising? How does exercise tie into your creativity, inspiration, and general well being as a writer?

That is a question I can almost answer in two words: Rockefeller Park. I live in Westchester County, New York, basically in the suburbs. But my apartment is only fifteen minutes away from pure bliss, and by that bliss I mean the park. There are acres and acres of trails to follow—through woods, through meadows and farmland, around a lake, beside a river and its many streams—it seems endless. It’s very strange to me that often the people I encounter on my walks are foreigners who are sight-seeing or Americans who are there to walk their dogs. I can’t really understand running on a treadmill in a gym with four TV screens flashing images in front of you, when there exists this park and others like it. But as far as how it ties into writing: in the park, while walking, I often enter a kind of deep inner silence in which I am not separate from the landscape around me. After I come back from instances in which I experience this state of mind, I often hear words and rhythms forming, as I had mentioned before. These words seem like gifts from the park and they are. I don’t know where I’d be without my park pass!

 

What support have you received thus far that has enabled you to have two chapbooks published, an MFA, and publications in Cutbank, Quarterly West, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere? What kinds of support does a budding or mid-career writer need today?

Friends have been there for emotional support and for the mutual sharing of poetry. As far as having poems accepted in magazines, it has largely been luck—luck and perseverance, though once a kind man who was a reader for one publication took me under his wing for a while, because he liked a submission I sent. I owe him deep gratitude. What this means for other writers: I think it’s important to have 1) quiet time, quiet space, 2) the ability to build some community for yourself as a writer, whether this means an MFA program or poetry workshops at a local literary center or connections you discover through online networking, 3) belief in your own worth, as a writer, as a person, and 4) a love of reading.

 

How are you trying to get better as a poet? By reading the work of other poets and memorizing poems when I can.

Your chapbook credo: I’m not sure I have one.

Number of chapbooks you own:
 48 and counting

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: 47

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets:
 I have a favorite chapbook, Kathy Garlick’s The Listening World. Though it’s out of print and often hard to find, I search for copies to give to friends. I have also, recently, organized a reading for poets published by Finishing Line Press. I would like to organize more readings of this kind in the future.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: My chapbook earnings are not so substantial. Were they substantial, I’d purchase chapbooks with them. Were they really substantial, I’d take a long trip to Norway in the summer and drive up the Western coast to see the fjords and the midnight sun.

Your chapbook wish: For more people to read chapbooks. For more people to write amazing chapbooks and have them published and for these chapbooks to somehow fall into my hands.

Residence: White Plains, New York

Job: Not currently working.

Chapbook education: I mentioned Kathy Garlick’s The Listening World. Louise Glück’s October and Jennifer Militello’s Anchor Chain, Open Sail have also been important chapbooks for me.

Chapbook Bio: Spirits of the Humid Cloud (dancing girl press, 2012) and Petals as an Offering in Darkness (Finishing Line Press, 2014). For a longer bio, please see my website http://www.gilliancummingspoet.com

 

The Chapbook Interview with Julie Brooks Barbour on retellings

How did the series of poems in Earth Lust start—with a phrase, a sentence, a character, or something else?

It started with a quote from Rebecca Lee’s book Bobcat and Other Stories: “If I were willing to see the simplicity, the purity, of my own desire, then I also had to see the entire landscape—the way desire rises from every corner and intersects, creates a wilderness over the earth.” At the time I read Lee’s book, I was also reading Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her by Susan Griffin, which discusses woman’s body as a landscape man wants to tame. The two merged to make me consider how women navigate the landscape of desire within our culture.

I love that Earth Lust is influenced by fairy tales and includes a retelling of “The Maiden without Hands.” Were you ever scared to experiment with retellings?

Yes! I admire the work of many contemporary women writers who experiment with retellings, so I wasn’t sure if I was up to the task. I was a Classical Studies major in college, and attempted to retell various myths during an independent study with a poetry professor in my senior year. At the time, this work turned out to be more difficult than I thought; I did not take into account that I would have to re-imagine the story to retell it. I put that work aside, uncertain if I would ever pick it up again. About four years ago I started reading the work of Jeannine Hall Gailey.

I fell in love with She Returns to the Floating World, her collection of Japanese fairy tale poems. Gailey rekindled my interest in retellings. Since then, I’ve been paying attention to the retellings of other writers, but I never thought I could do it, or that I would be able to find a way to retell fairy tales that would be interesting to me, let alone anyone else. There’s such a rich history of this work in literature, be it myth or fairy tale, and I wasn’t sure I had anything to add to the conversation. If it weren’t for Susan Griffin, I don’t think I would have had the desire to get started. I needed to have a fire lit under me to take on such an historical task.

 Marriage is a theme in Earth Lust. How does motherhood inspire your work? Is it difficult to balance family life with the writing life?

Since I am the mother of a daughter, I am constantly reminded of the transitions women make from girlhood to womanhood. When my daughter was an infant and toddler, I thought more about the bond between mother and child. Now that she’s older, I find myself thinking about adolescence and the early years of womanhood. Much of what my daughter experiences inspires me to think and write about my own past, but also how women connect through shared experiences.

It can be difficult to balance family life with writing life. I’ve learned to adapt, as every age has its own challenges. I learned early on to take spare moments when they presented themselves, so now I can write whenever I have free time.

 

In Earth Lust I adore the tension created in the chapbook by the line, “Off to the side were other roads.” Can you talk about desire and longing in this collection?

I wanted this chapbook to look not just at the ways we navigate desire, but also at our own desires. While there are poems about the dangers of desire, there are also poems about the longing to be noticed as well as what outsiders think we should want. If we don’t want the things we’re told to want, how then do we live our lives so they reflect what we value? And how do we inch out of the expectations of others? The characters in these poems are caught up in societal roles but many of them break free: the Minstrel’s Daughter chooses to live in the forest, away from her father, and the Woman without Hands finds a way to have physical contact with her infant even though her hands have been taken from her. A woman puts herself in a vending machine by choice: it is her only escape from the colorless countryside in which she lives. These other roads are opportunities the characters take, if only by moonlight.

Who were the writers you admired when you first started writing? Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Randall Jarrell, and H.D.

What is inspiring you these days? The stories of Franz Kafka and Lydia Davis. Sherlock. Photographs of abandoned houses.

How are you trying to get better as a poet? By experimenting and writing outside my comfort zone. I like to challenge myself as a poet. I can only hope it improves my writing!

Your chapbook credo: Little books give poets the chance to experiment.

Number of chapbooks you own: 34 (and counting)

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: 24

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: Through Facebook and Twitter, and mentioning their work to my students and other poets

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: On bills or on books by other poets

Your chapbook wish: That more people read chapbooks. It’s a great way to be introduced to the work of a poet.

Residence: The Upper Peninsula of Michigan

Job: Assistant Professor of English

Chapbook education: The chapbooks of Angela Vogel and Sally Rosen Kindred

Chapbook Bio: Julie Brooks Barbour is the author of Small Chimes (2014) and two chapbooks: Earth Lust (forthcoming 2014) and Come To Me and Drink (2012). She is an Associate Poetry Editor at Connotation Press: An Online Artifact and Poetry Editor of Border Crossing. She teaches composition and creative writing at Lake Superior State University.

Collaborate Artist Interview: Sally Deskins on the female form

IF in a show 2014

You grew up in Oregon and Nebraska. What was that like? How did it influence your desire to be an artist?

Well I lived in Oregon twice growing up, and Missouri for a few years as well. Most of my upbringing was in Omaha, perhaps twelve or so homes/apartments total. My upbringing was the foundation for myself and art, so it in fact impacts it quite a lot, in ways I really can’t even express, remember or understand. But perhaps here I can start with this fact—moving frequently—kept me on my toes, taught me to see and understand ways of living differently. I was also raised with foster children and foreign exchange students. My parents are from opposite ends of the United States, and my extended family has always been spread around the states as well, so constantly seeing different ways of living made me recognize and accept different perspectives. I’ve always been an introvert, always listening and seeing. As both of my parents are creative in their own ways, as well, I learned to define “artist” broadly. My brother was often lauded the “talented artist” growing up, drawing clever comic strips and caricatures. I actually fell into theatre and loved it, starting my own “theatre club” in elementary, which I directed for a few years. In high school my shyness took over, I didn’t even want to draw in front of people, but I enjoyed journalism, and sewing, where “coolness” or “being the best” didn’t take precedence. Maybe it was all in my head. Anyway, the actual lands of Oregon, Nebraska and Missouri, I can’t actually articulate their environmental impact on me any more than my traveling anywhere. It has been more the people and direct experiences—perhaps though, the Midwest instilled in me a strong work ethic—which, if you’ve lived anywhere else, you will then appreciate. And, there is nothing like the Oregon beach, the coolness, the breeze, the free feeling it brings and back down to earth.

Wanda and Sally

Who were the artists you admired when you first started making art?

Well, way back when I wanted to be a fashion designer, it was Anna Sui. I loved her quirky, dark designs—culturally inspired and beautiful for being edgy. When I read about Marcel Duchamp in high school art history class, I fell in love with the whole Dada art movement (or non-art, effectively). When I switched to being an art major in college, I was really inspired by Jim Dine who is considered part of the “Neo-Dada” movement, but I didn’t think technicalities. I loved his expressive line quality, his personification of robes, hearts and tools. I still do. I also admired Alice Neel, her very real and patchy portraits of her friends and family, not prettified, just existent. I’ve always loved the expressionists, too. Oskar Kokoschka was one of my favorites who played with the female body, as were Gustav Klimt, Henri Matisse. (Of course here I’m talking purely aesthetically, not of their personalities or personal lives.) Different artists impact me now more specifically, but those were the artists I looked to from the start. Quite honestly, since women are notoriously skipped over in art history books I did not learn of many women in art until I began doing the work myself! I never was a huge fan of Georgia O’Keeffe until recently (perhaps because in eighth grade my teacher had us try to draw a flower like her and I was so frustrated mine turned out to look like a pink chewed up piece of gum), or Judy Chicago even. My parents had a “Women in Art” coffee table book, and perhaps a Mary Cassatt print on the wall, growing up, but I didn’t really appreciate that until later. After undergrad and when I came back to drawing, Omaha based artist Wanda Ewing was (and continues to be) a huge inspiration for me artistically and personally (see my writing about her on Les Femmes Folles here).

more early work with Intimates and Fools, LFF Books

How do you start a new series—with a theme, an image, a question or with a material, a technique, a color? Or something else?

With the collaborative work I’m doing with you, that starts with reading the poetry! J I suppose each series is different and depends on what is going on with my life personally, and what art supplies I have on hand. With my self-portrait series I did in college, I don’t know if I knew I was doing that. It just ended up being what I drew over and over, before I was assigned to do one. I was my natural subject since I guess I was also “finding myself” in a matter of speaking. After my hiatus and having babies, I came back drawing my babies over and over.

Yearning to get outside of baby-mode for a bit and try to almost re-find my Self and my Own Body, my next series doing body prints was another form of self-portraits. I came to this after doing some art-modeling and seeing an exhibit of Yves Klein’s “Anthopometries” series. I used my children’s finger paint and whatever paper I had, and went at it. This was also the same time I started my journal Les Femmes Folles, interviewing women in art, as I enjoyed hearing about other women’s work and their finding their way, I began to find my own. With this first series I call “Voice” (after the group exhibit I co-curated with Megan Loudon Sanders) I used some of their quotes and texted them onto my body prints to put another layer on the series. Upon the first exhibit of this series, I found more people querying about my role as mother and how my artwork might impact this, rather than the work itself. Thus was born my next series “What Will Her Kids Think?” again with body prints and text from famous and infamous women artists who are mothers about this very issue.

My children were growing as well. I would color and paint with them. I became interested in their very gendered imagery from their children’s books, as well as their lovely, carefree brush strokes and color choices. Again, I used what I had and began drawing figures on the many “leftover”/ “recycle-pile” pages.

common prayer

Most recently with this next collaboration with you for Leave of Absence, I began with your poetry on the topic of trees. I knew I wanted to utilize body prints but in a different way—more twisted and more abstracted parts of the body and maybe some leaf-prints as well. I knew I wanted to also incorporate some of my children’s playful imagery too. So, once again, I began with what I had—taking stock of my paper, paint, and pages from my kids’ “recycle art” pile. I found paper that would work, and laid out the colors of paint I had, and went out in the yard quick to find some interesting leaves with my kids, and just painted and printed the whole pad of 30 pages. With these and with the pile of kids’ art, I sift thru them over and over to see in them—where a figure might lie, or text, or another small illustration to add to it.

I find the “use what I have” helps me focus—as you know, Madeline, I start many works at once, leave them, start others, and keep coming back, changing, many times until they are done. So having just a certain kind of paper and media, helps me focus just a little bit, enough to get an idea formed and out into space. So I suppose, all of that having been said, a new series starts with an image (body) and then with the material.

weeping hawthorn (2)

You’re starting a masters program in art history at the University of West Virginia with a teaching assistantship, correct? How do you anticipate teaching art history will impact your work?

Tenfold. It will help me with interviews like this, at the very least—ha! As one of the professors said to me, I have all of these ideas and projects, and this will help me understand and articulate them much better. In college, I minored in art history (and English) but really only touched the surface of what I’d really like to dig into—women in art, feminist art movements, modern art, art about the body—and how they did it all (theory/methodology). I am so excited (and nervous!) to dig into the books and inner workings of artists I have never uncovered before, to seek more inspirations and find new ideas and hopefully share them with others as well—continuing the spirit of Les Femmes Folles in a bigger, broader way.

even more early work with Intimates and Fools, LFF Books

How does motherhood inspire your work? Do you create art with your children? What’s that like?

Inevitably. I am so fortunate to have healthy, happy, supportive kids and husband, and I am still alive. I am so lucky to be able to practice my art while being a mother. It helps me make and create by not having time. It makes me appreciate it when I do. It brings me down to earth and around it—further enhancing my understanding and empathy for humanity, I’d like to think (most of the time). It makes me think of the future (with this next series about environment for instance), and stick to the present (process).

Yes, I create art with them, most of it just playful and process-oriented, but sometimes something comes of it, as I discussed above. Basically, it’s on the fly; what should we paint on today? Yesterday we found some rocks to paint on, the other day they painted on every one of their toy trucks and cars and examined each of their tire tracks. Sometimes it’s just coloring books or a piece of scrap paper in my purse. At the park, my daughter likes to gather things and create “sculptures” out of sticks, rocks, leaves, whatever she finds. Sometimes I’ll get out some toys in the corner of my studio so I can get a few things done, or let them work with my pastels on the floor. It works for a few minutes but mostly they like to see what I’m doing!

I am so thankful to be able to practice my art, do what I love, and see it from their point of view. These crazy little monkeys. Too, I hope they see part of what I do intrinsically in a feminist fashion—appreciating and accepting femininity and the female form, and me being a strong (when I can) woman doing what she loves. I recently read this quote by Maya Angelou: “I would like to be known as an intelligent woman, a courageous woman, a loving woman, a woman who teaches by being.” Says it perfectly; I think of this while I work and aspire to it. So yes, motherhood is a constant. It would be hard to separate these living beings I am literally a part of, and am responsible for their well-being’s.

layout in progress

Were you ever scared to experiment in art?

Oh yes, definitely. In college, I only used charcoal for the longest time, as I was afraid color would ruin my work. I would draw and erase for hours the same line with charcoal. Then when a professor “insisted”, I would only use 1-2 colors per piece. Then in another class, we “had” to use our whole palette, and mine turned into a mess, and after that I think I just sort of let it go. That is perhaps why I love the body prints, they’re just (mostly) uncontrolled expressions in paint. I still get that hesitation with drawing though, each stage I get worried I’m going to ruin it if I go further. I still love black and lots of white. With pencil I let it all out, as I love erasing and seeing the lines underneath. But it’s different with pen and paint (when I’m hand painting). Usually when I’m drawing with pen or paintbrush in hand, I just have to take a deep breath and pull it out.

early page layouts, LFF books

What do you think is at stake when people make art that challenges notions about the female form?

Everything and nothing. This is such a big question! Women have been utilizing the female form for eons but only recently (within past 50-60 years) has their work been brought to light (and still not very brightened light). I get asked “why don’t you use the male form in your work?” and right now, I just am not drawn to create work about the male form (but actually perhaps in the near future)—but maybe that is because I have seen so many nude females in art history, the subject is ingrained in us. Maybe, on this same note, I have seen so many nude females depicted in art history by male artists, I want to contribute alongside other women artists, to show our own perspective of our own bodies. Art plays a major role in history and defining and describing our culture, and also by challenging current and past conventions. Thankfully, artists like Lorna Simpson, Judy Chicago, Ana Mendieta, Carolee Schneeman, Yoko Ono, Marina Abramovic, Hanna Wilke, Michalene Thomas and Wanda Ewing have used the nude female form to take on issues of identity, race, sex and class. With all of the negative imagery of the female form in media, add-to, the quieted and cloaked-over women-defined female form, alternative views are necessary to create a feminist, accepting world for women—as we are women by our bodies first.

framed pages of Intimates and Fools for Ohio show 2013

With two young children, is it difficult to balance family life with making art?

Oh sure, “how do we do it all?” or whatever. There isn’t really “balance” just being and doing. Sometimes I get obsessed with a project or idea and I can’t focus when I’m present with the kids. Sometimes when I’m blocked artistically I’ll endlessly sit at my studio table looking at pictures of my kids or just play with them in the studio. But I figure, if at least I get one line drawn, one paragraph written or chapter read, I did something. And I try to make moments count with family, as well, sometimes blending the two. Everyone has to balance so we all make those choices, I suppose, though it is different when other’s lives’ are at stake, whether children, elderly or other loved ones. Again, thankfully I have healthy and supportive children and husband. Still, at times, it can be a guilt-game, either way.

experiment with leaves

What is inspiring you these days?

Along with your poetry for this upcoming project, fresh air. Though I don’t think about living in Nebraska necessarily impacting me thru its plains, living in West Virginia seems to thru its hills. When I was growing up, I dreamed of being a fashion designer living in New York with a flat and a garden on the roof. I never thought I’d be living on two acres in the hills of West Virginia with two children and a husband J. But now that I’m here I feel it suits me—I’m a bit rough, gritty (not to mention of course I love my family), and the hills constantly remind me of how small I am in the world. Really, I am still alive; why is that? Why am I so lucky? I am thinking; what artwork am I really supposed to be creating, what projects am I meant to be doing? I look at the trees and breathe in each moment, my kids learning to ride bikes, my husband painting the house, pause, and wonder.

How are you trying to get better as an artist?

Going to graduate school, for one. Visiting art shows, reading about and interviewing other artists, listening to people’s critiques (getting reviewed!) and I suppose, just keeping at it!

Number of art pieces you own: I have no idea! Maybe 20-30 (this does not count my own, and does count small pieces).

Number of art pieces you admire: ? Infinite!

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Ways you promote and serve other artists: All right let’s toot my own horn some more! My journal, of course, Les Femmes Folles, promotes artists of all genre/media (poets, performers, activitsts however you define) and the Les Femmes Folles Books promotes writers and artists via the anthologies, and the series of collaborative books that begun with our collaboration, Intimates and Fools (stay tuned for more!). I curate exhibits, readings and other events. I write reviews and articles for other publications of visual art exhibits, projects and news, and book reviews, exclusively (as of late) art and books by women. I’m constantly pitching story ideas to new publications about art and writing by women. I would like to do more though.

Where you spend your art earnings: That’s a laugh, isn’t it. The money is already spent on its frame! Any art earnings are spent on the gas to get to the gallery, or future art supplies, or lunch for the family, or a cocktail afterwards. As for LFF Books, I do donate a portion of the proceeds to the University of Nebraska-Omaha Wanda Ewing Scholarship Fund, to honor my late friend, mentor, stellar artist and inspiration behind Les Femmes Folles. (Donate at nufoundation.org.)

Your artist wish: Just one? Ha. I don’t know, perhaps that art would be more of a mainstream thing like football—then we can really make a difference—I guess on top of that, that women’s perspectives seen through the art with which is on the front page regularly, would make a major difference with respect to women (and thus men) in everyday life. Could you imagine (most) people reading about (and thus perhaps appreciating/taking part in) non-violent expression every day? Dreamworld.

Residence: West Virginia

Job: Artist, Editor, Writer

Education: BA, University Nebraska-Lincoln; MPA, University Nebraska-Omaha

Bio: Sally Deskins is an artist, writer, mother, wife and feminist enthusiast. She is a Teaching Assistant in the Art History Graduate Program at West Virginia University. Deskins’ art explores womanhood, motherhood and the body via body-prints, drawing and text from her life and others’. Her work has been exhibited in Omaha, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, Pittsburgh, Ohio and Chicago; and published in Certain Circuits, Weave Magazine, and Painters & Poets. She has curated exhibitions, readings and performances centered on women’s perspective and the body. Her writing has been published internationally. She is founding editor of LES FEMMES FOLLES an organization supporting women in art. She has published three LES FEMMES FOLLES anthologies of art and writing. Her first illustrated book Intimates & Fools, with poetry by Laura Madeline Wiseman, was published in 2014 by Les Femmes Folles Books. She is currently working on her second collaborative book, Leave of Absence: An Illustrated Guide to Common Garden Affection. She is also currently exhibiting in a group show at Taylor Books’ Annex Gallery in Charleston thru July 31; and will be exhibiting a solo exhibit at Future Tenant Gallery in Pittsburgh in August.
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