Breath and Matter Exhibit Brings Together Poetry and Sculpture (Part 1)

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by heather hughes

On July 18, “Breath and Matter” opens at the Boston Sculptors Gallery in the South End. The exhibit, which grew out of Murray Dewart’s anthology Poems About Sculpture, features nineteen pairs of artists. Using materials as diverse as light and tree bark, steel and moss, sculptors responded to and incorporated poetry in their practice. Several of the poets included in the show — Mary Bonina, Oliver de la Paz, Alison Deming, Chard deNiord, Anaïs Duplan, and Corey Michael Smithson — described their experiences collaborating for this exciting and unconventional show, which runs through August 12. An opening reception will be held on July 18 at 5:30, free and open to all.

The Collaborative Process

Poets developed new work for “Breath and Matter” in tandem with the sculptors they were paired with. Often the artists drew on established relationships and mutual admiration to create these pieces especially for the exhibit.

Anaïs Duplan, author of Take This Stallion and founder of the Center for Afrofuturist Studies, worked with Hannah Verlin, who they met years ago when Duplan was her studio assistant. Of their process, Duplan says, “In a sense we began already with our existing understanding of each other. We each chose pieces by the other that we liked and worked from there. We talked about the themes we were both thinking about and how we saw our work working together. I created a video-poem inspired by some of Hannah’s existing work and then Hannah began constructing a new sculpture in response.”

Similarly, poet/multi-media artist Corey Michael Smithson and Andy Zimmermann had a well-established relationship when they came together for this exhibit to create Dialog Between Light and Darkness; the two first met as grad students in 2001. They developed their pieces concurrently, beginning with Zimmermann’s concept for the physical aspects of the work. “This helped to steer the future direction of the writing,” said Smithson. “[Andy] continued to offer feedback and encouragement throughout the process, until we arrived at a text that aligned with his vision.”

Oliver de la Paz, whose most recent poetry collection is Post Subject: A Fable, teamed with Rosalyn Driscoll, whom he met at the Mass Poetry Festival. “I was quite flattered that Rosalyn drew inspiration from my ‘Labyrinth’ poems, and I gave her an early draft of the manuscript to draw on as further inspiration on the pieces,” says de la Paz of their process. 

For Alison Deming, whose recent books include Death Valley: Painted Light in colloaboration with a photographer, working with Susan Lyman began with trees. “We agreed early on that we both want to riff off the John Fowles wisdom on trees. Then she shared with me images of works in progress and wood she'd salvaged off the beach,” says Deming. The back-and-forth exchange of their process included Deming’s poem “Salvage,” which she describes as having been “written for the space on [Lyman’s] piece — a tall and narrow slab that invited certain play with sound and sense.”

Poet Laurenate of Vermont Chard deNiord and sculptor Nancy Milliken came together to pay homage to a historic Shelburn, VT dairy barn that burned after a lightning strike in September 2016. deNiord tells the backstory of their exchange: “Nancy had collected several of the enormous burnt timbers from the dairy barn in a shed. As I stared at the beams for several minutes, feeling little if no inspiration about these carbonized joists and lintels, the biblical passage ‘Let the dead bury the dead’ (Luke 9, 60) popped into my head. Nancy promptly came up with the idea of dragging a few of the charred beams across a long narrow sheet, which I interpreted as a shroud.” In their correspondence, deNiord told Milliken that she had “given the destroyed barn voice on a shroud.” Of her work, he wrote, “I find these markings timely and resonant in today's Zeitgeist as an expression of implicit witness to acts of desecration occurring in war zones where zealots are dragging statues off their pedestals, soldiers off battlefields, debris out of decimated cities, dead ideas out of the past?” In response, his elegy “attempts to capture what I read in the beams ‘unsayable’ marks,” he says. 

Mary Bonina, whose most recent poetry volume is Clear Eye Tea, met B. Amore when they both had work included in “375 Views of Boston,” an anniversary exhibit held at City Hall, and kept up a correspondence since then. “I’d always admired her energy for her work and the work of others —her sense of community,” Bonina says of Amore. Their collaboration involved what Bonina describes as “a parallel process, checking in with each other when we needed clarification or to share our experiments.” While Amore drew inspiration from a poem of Bonina’s titled “We Swim,” Bonina used a sculpture of Amore’s featuring gloves dipped in bronze, called “Canterbury Pilgrims” (though not referencing Chaucer), as a jumping-off point. Their check-ins, including photos and explanations of Amore’s techniques and material choices, allowed for clarifications and deepenings throughout the process. Through their back-and-forth, Bonina came to know that “B was getting at the common journey more than the individual life. I had seen the way the individual gloves were linked and that did call up a commonality for me, and they seemed to be on a common journey certainly —no stragglers —everyone pulling for everyone else was an idea I worked with. And it was only a journey not a destination that the sculpture called up.” Their contributions to “Breath and Matter” came together as a result of this tight communication, where, as Bonina says, “[B.’s] process was to write to me about the work in steps, deconstructing and constructing again —just what I was doing in writing a poem about her piece, trying to get it right.”

Ekphrasis Practice

Ekphrastic poetry based on a wide array of art forms, from painting and photography to film and video, is a reglar part of the work of these poets. Deming said of her practice, “I've written poems inspired by Courbet, Myron Stout, John Marin, Rubens, cave paintings at Lascaux. So, yes, usually paintings that invite voice to come into play with the material presence. I want to be in conversation with the art works, though of course they cannot speak.” Likewise, deNiord has a long history of ekphrastic writing, having collaborated on several artist books, including Book of Evening with Brian Cohen and Torn Web with Michele Burgess. 

Duplan has recently begun writing about black video artists from the 60s to the present. They say of the source material, “It’s fascinating stuff that hasn’t been written about much, especially not in poetry.” de la Paz draws inspirationg from photography of the grotesque: “I’m enamored by Rosamund Purcell as well as the works of Eadweard Muybridge. When I write ekphrastically I always attempt to write what’s beyond the image while paying definite homage to the image.”

Smithson, who is a visual artist as well as a poet, notes the overlap of subject, theme, and mood among the various media he works in. “In general,” he says, “I try to express in writing what I cannot communicate with images, and vice-versa. I rarely write poems that directly describe or allude to existing pieces of art. It all emerges from the same creative impulse, though.”

Other Sculpture-Inspired Poems

Like deNiord, Duplan, and Bonina, you may already be a fan of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (translated here by Stephen Mitchell). Bonina said of this poem, “I love the way [Rilke] describes the broken, overwhelmingly beautiful and powerful sculpture and then the surprising contrast of the famous ending.”

Deming points to Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” inspired by the Robert Gould Shaw sculpture on the Boston Common, as a poem she loved early on. 

Oliver de la Paz’s poem “Children Playing Around the Monument to Lost Fishermen,” written in response to a sculpture in Bellingham, WA, can be heard at Fishouse Poems

Perhaps no sculpture-inspired poem resonates in the USA like “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus. Corey Smithson cites it as a favorite, saying that it “has always moved me, but I never realized its full power until I moved to New York, and saw the Statue of Liberty on an almost daily basis. The final line, ‘I lift my lamp beside the golden door’, still puts a lump in my throat whenever I consider its meaning.”

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article, to come in late July before the second reception and reading, which will take place on August 3rd as part of SOWA’s First Fridays evening gallery walk