Prose from Poetry Magazine

Poetry Is Everywhere

On texts and textiles.

I make hand-embroidered work that contains images, texts, and traditional items such as sampler designs. My work typically has what some might call a poetic character, a result of the content, lively composition, and sensitive use of color. I love poetry and relate to it, not by quoting lines in my work, but through the inspiration that is offered by the free spirit of poets. A great example of such a poet is Kira Wuck. Here is one of her poems, which I have translated myself:

Finnish girls seldom say hello
They are not shy nor arrogant
One only needs a chisel to come closer
They order their own beer
Travel all over the world
While their men are waiting at home
When angry they send you a rotten salmon.
— From Finnish Girls

I am very impressed by this young Dutch poet. In 2011, she won the Dutch Poetry Slam Championship. Wuck is half Finnish and half Indonesian. The poems have a remote kind of humor with unusual but precise language. I relate to the free and creative way she combines images, like a chisel, beer, and a rotten salmon. I combine items in a similar way in my own work. I have not used this beautiful text in my work yet, but I often use repetition of a traditional image. 
I now have started to add a carrot in each work as a kind of running gag. I was very happy when Nigel Cheney machine-stitched plenty of 
carrots for me when he heard I had run out of carrots.

In art school we practiced a kind of calligraphy while copying a section of “Lament for the Death of Ignacio Sánchez Mejías” by Frederico García Lorca. (We needed to practice calligraphy and our teacher thought it would be best to use a good poem instead of a stupid text. A great idea!) The repetition of “A las cinco de la tarde” (At five in the afternoon) had a huge impact on me. The rhythm of the second (repeating) line reminds me of the ringing of church bells. It is one of the few lines of poetry I remember after all these years.


Playground, 2008, by Tilleke Schwarz, with detail.

I rarely include lines of poetry in my work, but a few times I was invited to do so. For instance, when I was participating in a group exhibition that celebrated the two hundredth birthday of Alfred Lord Tennyson, the curator sent several lines for inspiration. In general I hate to use other people’s themes for my work but the lines of poetry spoke to me and I rather appreciated them, so I included “As the thistle shakes / When three gray linnets wrangle for the seed” and 
“I am a part of all that I have met” in my work Playground.

I always like to include text in my work, mostly out of its original context, whether it is poetry or not. I like to think that it becomes a kind of poetry (if not already) as new meanings appear and the oddities of our modern society surface, which seems to be the main theme in my work. For instance, last summer I had a layover in Detroit. The airport is modern and pleasant, and not only people but also dogs are welcome. There were specially designated “pet relief areas,” which sounds a lot more inviting than the blunt toilet or WC for human beings. Pet relief can be understood variously as a device to get rid of one’s dog or as a kind of liberation. This poetry leaked through to the design of the facility itself, including the tiny dog bidets. I probably will use some of this inspiration in my work. As the visual artist Susan Hiller has said in her work, which mainly consists of huge texts, “There is no distinction between ‘reading’ images and reading text.”

Security is an extremely important issue in our modern world. It makes us behave stranger than ever and dominates our way of living. I love signs that say “secret access code” for a simple locker at the train station or “suspicious circumstances” for an area one is not allowed to enter. This sounds so mysterious but does not give any clues to what is going on. Last year I received a parcel from the US with the notice that it “does not contain any unauthorized explosives, destructive devices, or hazardous materials.” The US seems to require the sender to add this kind of information to a package. To me it is absolutely unusual to inform the addressee about what is not in the package.


100% Checked, 2005, by Tilleke Schwarz, with detail.

When on holiday in Iceland I was intrigued by the content of their national phone book. The first pages contained instructions for the general public regarding natural disasters. Attention was paid to volcanic eruptions (“Always wear a helmet in the vicinity of eruptions”), lightning and thunderstorms, earthquakes, and avalanches. Exciting! The text would even improve when shortened (“take the shortest way out by moving perpendicular to the wind”). It offered me 
something to think about: Why the general public? Why natural disasters? My favorite line is: “Stay where the wind blows and do not go into low (!) areas.” First of all, it sounds romantic. Then I realized that I am also living in a low area (below sea level) and that area is also called the “low countries” (the Netherlands and Belgium). So maybe I am risking my life over here.

Sometimes quotes knock on my door and insist to be part of my work. “On ne mange pas tulipes” (one does not eat tulips) is an original quote from the French chef Paul Bocuse when a Dutch television host interviewed him about what kinds of Dutch ingredients he uses in his world-famous cuisine. His first answer was Gouda cheese, but the interviewer insisted on hearing a bit more. Bocuse’s answer was a little arrogant and humorous, but probably more dramatic than he realized. Tulip bulbs were a common dish near the end of WWII when there was a great shortage of food in Holland. My mother-in-law told me she even liked them as they taste like onions. Needless to say, she is not a very fussy eater.

I was born in 1946 but WWII had quite an influence on my life. 
I am Jewish and my parents survived the war by being hidden by very courageous farmers in the north of Holland. My eldest sister was protected by a minister and his wife. Most of my relatives, however, were murdered. My parents hardly spoke about those times or the loss of their numerous relatives. We hardly dared to ask; even in our childhood we somehow sensed that it was too painful and too difficult to cope with.


Losing our memory, 1998, by Tilleke Schwarz, with detail.

The famous Dutch visual artist, writer, and poet Armando was raised in the town of Amersfoort near a “transition camp” for prisoners who were to be sent to concentration camps in Germany. The suffering of the victims and the cruelty of the Nazi camp guards, so near to his home, influenced him for the rest of his life and became the main theme in his work. He blames “guilty landscapes and guilty trees” and wonders why they did not do anything when the drama took place.

Yes, the trees are still there, actually. But that
noise, where does that noise come from.
That did not used to be there.
— From Notes on the Enemy

I like the way he makes very short poems, often consisting of just a few lines with subtle references to the past. I try to deal with this past in a similar way. I have known them all has many references to WWII and my family. Tally marks recall the many murdered people. I used different colors from reddish to gray to black to indicate that their fire is still slightly burning. In 1999 I included the Star of David and the words “millenium proof” in my work Losing our memory.

Leo Vroman was a very interesting and sensitive Dutch poet. Like Armando, he is multitalented as a Dutch-American hematologist, a prolific poet (mainly in Dutch), and an illustrator.

If I know better as a poet
My heart I do not know you very well
And uncertain if you know me well;
You are maybe used to me
Or mainly attached to me.
— From If I know better as a poet

I am not certain about the meaning behind the quoted lines. But I assume they are part of a love song for his wife, Tineke. Their mutual history is a moving love story. I have never expressed my love on linen, except for maybe the love for my main muse: my cats. Almost all my works contain some cats.

Originally Published: April 1st, 2016

Tilleke Schwarz exhibits her work all over the world and has appeared in many books and magazines.

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In
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