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According to Beauty

By Emily Warn


Photo Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Soon April will end and I’ll be as guilty as the editors behind the fashion shoot in O Magazine’s April poetry issue. I spoke with a few of the featured poets, raising expectations that I’d write about what the O issue left out—their poetry and their experience of the shoot. Many felt set up by the staff of O: Before their photo sessions, the editors asked for their poems and books. Many were genuinely excited. During the shoot, one editor engaged the poets in lengthy conversations about their work. Some members of the crew read the poets’ poems on the set, and asked questions of them, too. None of this interest in the poetry was reflected in the ultimate piece.

One of the featured poets, Aracelis Girmay, author of two poetry collections and a teacher at Hampshire College, expressed her disappointment in a letter to the editors, which she posted on her Facebook page:

I thought that this feature would be an opportunity for our work to be highlighted alongside, somehow, the fashion component. The longish conversation about poetry, community, teaching, & influences that I had with your writer gave me the impression that it would be, somehow, a little more about the work. While the artistic director of the shoot had the painstakingly difficult & interesting idea of incorporating our words in the set, the words are either physically obscured or so out of context that it’s difficult to glean any meaning from them. I wish that in a forum so unabashedly excited about celebrating the “expression” of eight women poets, our voices hadn’t been upstaged by props & clothes. We see this all the time—in fashion magazines & the entertainment industry–& it’s both uninteresting to me, & offensive. We are poets, after all, with voices & language to explore. Hopefully more than our clothes & bodies & faces.

Rachel Eliza Griffiths, on the other hand, agrees with Girmay’s points, yet correctly guessed the outcome of the shoot. Along with being an accomplished poet and a teacher at Sarah Lawrence, she’s a photographer and visual artist, and she once worked at a design magazine. “When I heard the word ‘fashion,’ I knew it wouldn’t be a feature story. A fashion shoot is a fashion shoot.” Yet after the genuine interest editors showed in her work, she, too, thought O would feature it in some way—perhaps on the web. But her overall response to the fashion feature and the poetry issue in general was positive.

“Being on the set felt surreal to me, and uncomfortable,” she said, “because as a photographer I’m usually behind the camera, not in front of it. “ This switch from being agent or artist to being object is uncannily echoed in “According to Beauty,” one of three poems she sent to O editors in response to their request. In it she imagines a hunter of beauty and beauty as a hunter:

Under the hood of irreparable delight,
adorned in moths, I arrived. What is the name
for those who collect the beautiful?

The word for the gesture of seeing
but not possessing eyes? Sight ghosted or exorcised. An eye
that blurs as the selves, the burden of the I within
a flawless landscape.
(“According to Beauty”)

Griffiths has often asked and thought about the relation between poetry and fashion, specifically about the idea of poets as “fashionable,” as projecting an image. Her perspective, I think, is most accurately and eloquently presented in her own words.

Q. Tell me more about your photographs.

Griffiths: Well, the subjects of my photographs are often poets and artists, so I was curious about how the O shoot would turn out. There are so many dimensions to writers, poets, and musicians that can be sensed in a photograph–no matter what they have on. I’m fascinated by how images of poets over time become iconic—Langston Hughes always wearing a hat or Allen Ginsberg in his owl glasses. In the 50s, Anne Sexton oozed style in the way she dressed and presented herself.

I talked to the editors about my project to shoot portraits of as many members of Cave Canem as I can in my lifetime, which has given me the opportunity to photograph the late Lucille Clifton (see photograph above) and Yusuf Komunyakaa, and I hope, to photograph many less well known poets in the future.

Q. What did you first think when you saw the O Magazine feature?

I had just left Sarah Lawrence and was at the Bronxville train station. I had bought a cup of coffee and saw the issue on the newsstand. When I opened it and flipped through the pages, I thought it was cool in a Miles Davis kind of way to see my favorite poets in a major magazine. The fashion feature did look like the typical fashion shoot that I thought it would look like. I was interested to see all the ways they chose to present poetry to the public. I felt proud to belong to the species called poets, to turn the pages and see the names of poets whose work I admire. That more than anything made me happy.

I was mostly pleased that O had tried to bring poetry into a bigger sandbox. I’m actually pretty shy, though, and find it hard to look at any pictures of myself. As I said, I’m more comfortable behind the camera instead of in front of it.

Q. What are your thoughts about poetry and fashion?

What people wear is what you see before they see you. Seeing before being seen is about silence. Any artist and photographer can use silence. Silence is a part of language.

If the shoot had included very different body types and ages, or if it had included more established women poets, what would the response have been? We were labeled as rising poets, which means we were not viewed as poets who might have just won a Pulitzer. The word “rising” or “new” means we’re at the mercy of critics and fellow poets who will likely determine by their support—positive or negative—who among us will be taken seriously. Someone “rising” can go in any direction.

People don’t necessarily look to O for fashion and art. It focuses more on the individual—at least in the issues I’ve read—on people who are creative or are giving back to the world. It’s one of the most intelligent magazines out there right now specifically for women. Unlike Cosmo or Glamour, it doesn’t run stories such as “332 Ways to Please Your Man.”

It’s also important to note a rather obvious fact – Oprah Winfrey is a black woman. What does that mean, if anything, these days? Many people recognize her positive contribution to our culture at the same time that they’re critical of it.

Poetry is different. There is no Oprah of poetry. I wouldn’t want there to be an Oprah of poetry. But I think there are tastemakers in the poetry world who make judgments about poets in the same way we judge magazines. Are your poems Vanity Fair or Redbook material? Are you a New Yorker or Hanging Loose poet? I find it perplexing that we replicate the behaviors that we say we want to challenge or change.

Q. What do you think about the fact that O presented a very racially diverse group of women in the feature?

My response to that is complex. People would have protested, or raised challenging questions, if O had featured eight Caucasian women. I think a lot about invisibility and visibility. In general, as poets and even more as women, we are often underappreciated and marginal in relation to rest of culture, and yet women dominate the fashion pages. When women of color are included, they are often used for agendas other than their own, often by classifying us as a group when really our identities and backgrounds—as is evident among the women featured in O—are much more nuanced.

Lately in the poetry community, people have been discussing this very issue—about black women and their space and their silence. Some women poets are, rightly, very concerned about their voices being silenced. I don’t think of myself as silenced. I think O contributed to this discussion in a positive way.

Q. Is there anything more you’d like to say about the experience?

A lot of people are asking questions and offering critiques of the shoot, but they seem to be either for or against it. The poetry community seems polarized. This is, in part, a distraction from issues that are much more important and uncomfortable for the community. For instance, the disparity in numbers of women being published and reviewed that VIDA published recently. Or the recent dialogue about race between Tony Hoagland and Claudia Rankine and the significant way that opened up a conversation within the larger community. I’d rather think about those issues. When I consider my participation in the photo shoot, the same layers of meaning and questions do not arise, for me, as when I think about these other issues.

I think the issue was a brave thing to do for O Magazine. They made a strong effort. Some things they did succeeded, and others missed the mark. But that they tried at all is better than doing nothing and then complaining that poetry’s endangered or extinct.

I have much work to do, poems to write, photographs to take. I have to put some distance between the shoot and myself because how I move in world is not reflected on any one page.
*** ***
Rachel Eliza Griffiths is the author of Miracle Arrhythmia (Willow Books, 2010), The Requited Distance (Sheep Meadow Press, 2011), and Mule & Pear (New Issues Poetry & Prose, forthcoming Fall 2011)

Here is one of the poems that Griffiths sent into O before the fashion shoot:

Hymn to a Hurricane
For the grace of fingers that could not grasp edges, corners, or anchors.
For hands that were too wet to bridge the chasm of inches or rope.

For the wrist and its bending digits, for the drowned infants who
   floated like wood past the dark hulls of their mothers’ bodies.

For the days-old corpses of women and men whose wheelchairs became
   graves.
For children who were too shocked to speak their identities;
for the ghosts of their voices that haunt the flag to which they were
   taught to pledge allegiance.

For the rainbows that assembled in their waters diseased with gasoline
   and blood.
For the voices whose rage thundered like thunder inside the stadium
   because they refused the musky death of animals.

For the men who fired guns at helicopters that passed over their own
   nearly submerged heads.
Over and over the blades whirred promises of water and bread and help
   while mothers and daughters, brothers and fathers drowned, their
   lives devoured by neglect.

Lives gave up on the living and floated to dark, drier islands.
Torrents rose over broken levees.
Dead cattle bobbed along interstates.
Highways unfurled into ribbons and graves.
The President remained on vacation.
The Secretary of State shopped for shoes.

For Charmaine Neville who commandeered down Canal Street while
   storefronts shattered and bodies were smashed.
Helpless fists pounded the bus window like bullets.
For the junkies who needed something stronger than death or a dream
   to placate their addictions.
For the residents who refused to abandon the corpse of New Orleans.

For a husband who could not save his entire family because he only had
   two hands.
For their house split in half by water.
For his wife’s last words: you can’t hold on and hold me.
For the absence of God as she dropped his hands and gave herself like a
   petal to the gulf.

For her son who understood, as he climbed onto the roof by the help of
   two trembling hands, that his father, only a man and not a god, could
   not save his mother’s life from something as inexplicable as water.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, April 28th, 2011 by Emily Warn.