Q & A

POETRY: What is your interest in Cy Twombly's art? What is the relationship between the poems and the specific paintings they invoke?

H.L. HIX: The poems presented here as a pair will participate in a larger project, Incident Light, a verse biography of my friend the artist Petra Soesemann, forthcoming in 2009 from Etruscan Press. Petra found out at age forty-nine that the father who had raised her was not her biological father. In hindsight, the discovery had begged to be made earlier, since Petra's mother and the father who raised her both are blue-eyed, German blondes, but Petra herself has black hair and dark eyes, like (she eventually learned) her biological father, who is Turkish. The father who raised Petra passed away some years ago; her mother and biological father are still alive. My biography tries not so much to establish the facts of Petra's life as to enter into the emotional experience of Petra herself and those with whom she is connected.

For me, then, the speaker in these two poems is not Cy Twombly or myself but Petra, and the mother and father are not my own (or Cy Twombly's) but Petra's. I explored Twombly's work, and wrote these poems in reflection on works of his, because in the interviews I conducted with Petra as part of my research she named Twombly as an influence on her own work. When the poems take their places in the larger project, Twombly's name will disappear from the titles, to reflect the way influence operates, without announcement.

P: Who are the “lost Mayan sisters?”

HLH: I have not tried to identify the referents in the poems more clearly (i.e., I have not tried to identify whose mother and father are being spoken to), because from my point of view a reader will “get” the poems not by identifying the speaker and the other characters but by identifying with them. In other words, I hear these poems (writing poems, like reading them, is a listening) less as documenting facts about Petra's life or my own than as finding in her experience something that speaks to my own. I do not mean to present Poetry readers with a puzzle to be solved by accumulating hidden clues in order to identify whose mother this is (as the reader of a murder mystery seeks to accumulate hidden clues in order to identify the villain); I mean to invite each reader to hear his or her own emotional experience anew, through the emotional experience of this speaker.

To take one example from one of the poems, Petra has no real “lost Mayan sisters,” and does not actually write letters to any imagined ones. However, she has half-sisters (her biological father's other daughters) with whom she does correspond, but of whom she learned only after learning about her biological father, and she does have expertise in pre-Columbian art and culture, from time spent in Mexico and Peru learning about the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas. Petra's real but long-hidden kinship relations and their accessibility or inaccessibility to literal communication provoke for me various metaphorical forms of kinship and communication that these poems, and others in the project, try to explore.

P: Does a reader need to have seen the paintings?

HLH: I don't mean these poems to demand prior knowledge of Cy Twombly's art or of Petra's life history. I do suspect that they will hold relatively more appeal for readers who do (and less appeal for those who do not) share my sense that emotional conflicts internalize, and existential dramas localize, metaphysical and epistemological problems inherent in the human condition. Petra's life history provoked these poems (and numerous others) because, to me anyway, it realizes emotionally and existentially an epistemological and meta-physical fear that also finds expression in the biblical book of Job, for example, and in Plato's allegory of the cave, namely that one may be living in delusions about oneself and the world, delusions that will be falsified too late or not at all. It is catharsis of that pity and fear, rather than knowledge of art-historical background or biographical anecdote, at which these poems aim.


This poem originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

March 2008

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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