Poetry News

Desiring Visual Texts: Maria Damon & Rachel Blau DuPlessis in Conversation

By Harriet Staff

Maria Damon, “Open Up and Bleed: For James Osterberg, Jr.” Damon: “‘Open Up and Bleed’ is for Iggy Pop (James N. Osterberg Jr.).

We love it when two brilliant poets decide to have a public dialog about their poetics. So imagine our enthusiasm for the recent exchange between Maria Damon and Rachel Blau DuPlessis in Jacket2 about visual texts. Maria Damon's embroidered poems are strange and richly colored, and their texture gives them a distinct non-digital presence, even when presented digitally. We're not experts on this subject, but we don't know any other writers who make poems for Iggy Pop, let alone embroidered ones.  Rachel Blau DuPlessis has had a collage practice at least since Drafts, and continues to make them--you can find a collection of her recent visual work at Alligator Zine.

According to the introduction, they each sent the other a series of questions and then responded via email. What emerged is an in-depth and thoughtful exchange. This isn't something to scan distractedly before rushing to work. It's more like a Sunday morning read. We were especially interested in reading about how Damon's "embroidery habit" developed and became literary:

The embroidery habit became literary much later, in 2000. I felt inspired by Lee Ann Brown’s visit to Minnesota in 2000 for our Poetry as Theory/Theory as Poetry symposium to make her a little piece with a phrase from one of her poems, the phrase “Tender Buttons” (after her press), and a few rosebuds from a Bengtsson pattern. I have no image of it because it was a gift and it took several years before I imagined that these little tokens could become worthy of documentation; they were simply gifts. Next came a far more ambitious piece, “X(exoxial)-stitch,” for my collaborator mIEKAL aND, who operates Xexoxial Editions and was a founding member of the Xexoxial Endarchy “multi-arts” nonprofit organization. The piece was a series of X’s, E’s, and O’s drawn from a small pamphlet of letter patterns I’d filched from a royalist apartment I’d stayed at in Paris when I was eighteen on scholarship from my girls’ school and en route to college. I had also, in the interim, had the ambition to stitch a skirt with my favorite literary sayings on it, but I only got as far as two: Genet’s “We cannot suppose a creation which does not spring from love” and Stein’s “In the midst of writing there is merriment.” I still have the skirt but can’t fit it anymore, plus it’s white, which is a stupid color for a skirt.

Equally fascinating is DuPlessis' description of her involvement during the mid-60s with an Upper West Side artistic group called The Eventorium:

This group had a magazine called The Eventorium Muse, but generally did not “go downtown” (i.e. to St. Mark’s, but to other sites as well, like Judson Church). At least many of its denizens did not. I did not — first, because I was a girl grad student during that time, and busy. But also I did not because of the really strong dangers for juicy young females at that time (to be wasted, used up, destroyed), me being very self-protective. Mainly I think I was wary/frightened because I did NOT have the adequate defenses against being used up nor the interest in risk elements of some of my actual age-mates. This (my not going downtown) is pertinent to my poetry, but it is also pertinent to collage. Collage now might be a way of reconnecting with that past and reclaiming it. Collage is certainly a promissory note — a debt to myself that I felt I had to pay. Or to redeem.

I know now that Notley was making collage during that approximate time. Barbara Guest, too. Collage was certainly a key medium for Joe Brainard, and now we know, for John Ashbery, too — at that era, it was very New York School and very art-world oriented. One of its modes, of course, is surrealist combinatoire, often witty, comic and knowing. My early poetry was more surrealist than what happened when I entered the objectivist zone after meeting George Oppen in 1965. But I’d say that the collage impulse shifted in and for my poetry from being image-based and lexicon-oriented to being structurally based, about the suggestive and semantic conjunctions of blocks of material. That is, collage became a vital and central poetics for my current poetry, but more on the level of structure than in the realm of individual image juxtapositions. More on that in a minute.

We're intrigued by the way this exchange about visual practices also becomes a dialog about geography and poetic practice as well as the very non-static boundaries of artistic disciplines and genres. You'll find the full dialog on Jacket2.