Why Are So Many Poets Also Artists?
Talking With Poets Whose Work Crosses Mediums
The more poetry I read, the more I find that an improbable number of good poets are in fact multidisciplinary artists. I say improbable because poetry is a difficult enough vocation in itself; its tenuous relationship to both capital and readership means that poets often supplement their writing with editorial or teaching jobs, leaving relatively little room for other pursuits. Yet for many poets, writing is just one of multiple creative praxes, proving right one of the most-quoted poetic lines of all time: Horace’s ut pictura poesis, “as is painting so is poetry.”
Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Ultimately, the experience of poetry is inextricable from the material dimensions of the poem: how it sounds, how it appears in print, and the ways its imagery commandeers the perceptive organs of its readers. If it’s true that poets are especially attuned to the gamut of sensory experiences, it follows that many of them work in media that appeal to the senses differently, or appeal to different senses altogether. Rather than distractions or incidental pastimes, their other artistic disciplines may be precisely what makes these poets’ work so consistently inventive.
To better understand the ways their artistic disciplines inform each other, I corresponded with several poets at a variety of stages in their careers who also work in a range of musical, visual, and tactile media. I wanted to know how they resisted the pressure to specialize, if different stories called for different representational modes, and whether creative code-switching was a cultivated or an automatic skill. What follows is a selection of highlights from these correspondences, which, like good poetry, challenged me to revise my conception of what exactly writers do when we write.
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I think most of us would find it strange if someone only got their art through one medium, like if someone claimed she only watched films. “I’m a film-watcher,” she’d say, “so, I don’t read poems, and I don’t look at paintings. I don’t listen to music much. I just watch films. That’s how I get my art.” Maybe it’s as strange for someone to make art from only one medium.
For me, I’ve come to realize, making art, at its best, is the same experience as getting it. I want it like I want to eat, and I don’t just eat one food. Sometimes I make what I eat, and sometimes I eat what other people make. I like every art. Right?
–Zachary Schomburg, poet and illustrator
My background with improvisation has made me a better poet. There is something about being able to connect two points in space with a movement of my arm, or cross a space/stage/gallery with my body, or respond to a gesture or impulse in the body of another, that has greatly influenced my writing. Part of poetry for me is being able to connect disparate elements/images/dialogues in the space of the page or poem, and I’ve known how to do this with my body for a very long time.
Two concepts I learned in improvisation: “kinesphere” from Nancy Stark Smith (meaning the space your body takes up at any given moment) and “proprioception” (meaning the sense of the things’ relative position within the body, or the body’s inherent knowledge of where it is in space) from Chris Aiken and Alexandra Beller. Those words are with my writing always. I ask myself about these qualities when I am writing, i.e., “Does this poem have a large or small kinesphere?”
–Emily Skillings, poet and dancer
Oddly enough, I think the creative practice I consider to be my native tongue has changed and will continue to change over time, altering my conception of what is even native. I remember C.D. Wright telling my poetry class at one point how important it was for a poet to know another discipline—not just kind of know it, but know it inside out, perhaps as well as you (think you) know poetry. I remember feeling validated in my concurrent endeavors, that I wasn’t wasting my time or spreading myself thin until I had no substance. For the same reason that I believe translation brings another dimension to a poet’s voice—which is the only thing that matters in poetry, or song, at the baseline—I believe that engaging deeply in any other discipline can deepen one’s writing practice.
–Valerie Hsiung, poet and singer
I often think about a wonderful interview with August Wilson in The Paris Review, Art of Theater No. 14. I read it all the time. Wilson first tried to write poetry but eventually he said, “I had worked so hard to earn the title ‘poet’ that it was hard for me to give it up… I still write poetry and think it is the highest form of literature. But I don’t call myself a poetplaywright. I think one of them is enough weight to carry around.”
I meditate upon this notion of “weight” frequently. I’m constantly asked this question and I think I have assembled quite a collage of responses. Socially, I’ll enter the room as a poet and will sometimes encounter more discussion about my photography, or vice versa. I can enter a room of visual artists and be referred to as “the poet” even though I’m in a gallery exhibiting my visual work. Personally, I want to focus on the primary work itself as much as I can, rather than be reactive to what some external discussion or naming might mean. I know my name. I alone must answer to my own imagination and my own discipline.
–Rachel Eliza Griffiths, poet and photographer
I don’t consciously switch between mediums. I try (heavy emphasis on try) to go into my studio in the morning and say, “What do I feel like doing?” The answer might be writing an essay, freezing a miniature in an ice cube, or stitching a real or invented patent design onto a handkerchief. I initially thought my most recent book, If the Tabloids are True What are You?, would be a book of poems titled with photographs of miniatures, but I got bored after about seven poems and started making constellations by pricking pins into black paper, which then morphed into making silhouettes and so on. I think so many poets are interdisciplinary artists because being a poet is about attentiveness, and that attentiveness doesn’t only translate into words.
In order to write, or just to be a marginally well-adjusted human, I need to feed my eyes (by photographing clouds in puddles or going to a miniatures store or the Museum of Art and Design) and my brain (by looking at sentence diagrams and reading dictionaries of slang). I think there’s a similar sensibility in my poems, photographs and silhouettes. I tend to juxtapose play or sweetness with something darker—if I were a car my natural gear would be Dollhouse Vanity with Tiny Gun.
–Matthea Harvey, poet and multimedia visual artist
In the past I did the two at the same time, on a substantial wooden desk with a big computer monitor (an arm deep) and a pile of beads and baubles on the same surface. Going back and forth between words and textures—it feels natural.
The most practical thing is to not be an artist at all. The idea of practicality feels tied to capitalism. I don’t like being practical and most practical people bore me because they make all their life decisions based on a certain set of principles that ties into “the system.” I think we realize really early on in our lives the social pressures of practicality (patriarchy), and some either take that path because it’s easier and others (artists) resist that path and typically suffer, at least a little bit. Ha. If you truly are an artist you can’t fully help it, it’s beyond yourself, it’s what you do to make life bearable. I think a large majority of poets and artists are innately more sensitive to the world and thus tied to abundant vaults of interpretation.
–Paige Taggart, poet and jeweler
My body and its experiences cannot survive in narrow spaces. As a nonbinary and mixed-race person of color, multiplicity is a necessary strategy in systems that enforce conformity, invisibility and hyper-vigilance. My work in dance, visual art and graphic design influences how I choose to perform or share my writing publicly. Often it shapes the form. One writing project exists as a series of visual images or slides, and another exists as a handmade comic book. In dance-making I’ll use writing as a generative or reflective practice, or I’ll use text as an improvisational and organizational tool.
Today most products are skimmed rather than read, skipped or scrolled over or swiped. Are people able to slow down to experience art, and experience their own feelings about art, today? What are the reasons and conditions that enable slowing down? What are the works of art that demand slowness? What are the works of art that are fully seen?
–Jai Arun Ravine, poet, dancer, and designer
I have a need to express myself variously and to know that I have the capacity to do so. Otherwise, I feel straightjacketed. I am very lucky to come from a family that, though they didn’t necessarily encourage me to be various, didn’t discourage it, either. This is noteworthy because, for many years growing up, teachers and others warned my parents that I had “too many irons in the fire.”
My music, as well as some of the other forms I work in, are self-referential, perhaps even self-reverential, meaning they exist in a vacuum, on their own terms. Unless someone rescues them, I predict they’ve already been forgotten. I have more hope for the poems.
–Kevin Simmonds, poet and musician
I mean, you can move a rock with water or air, the rock doesn’t care. But there’s that ever-present thought when say writing a poem of, What If I’m Wrong, and I don’t mean about the poem or word choice or tone or whatever but About Everything. And I don’t think a poem or drawing can solve or simplify this, but it can detract from it, or for a short while make it so it doesn’t matter either way. I love when that happens. That’s what I miss most about creating as a child, and mourn about the adult world I pride and embarrass my life about being at odds with.
I love so much how Picasso said, “It took me … a lifetime to paint like a child,” and I’m continually trying to get back to that, to be able to create out of wonder or myself rather than as someone who is trying to make sense or use of things.
–Jon-Michael Frank, poet and illustrator
I would not have traveled so aggressively and tirelessly if I hadn’t bought a good camera, and all this roaming around has informed my writing profoundly. For me, writing is not just a mental and indoor process but an intensely physical and social procedure that includes sitting for hours on trains and buses, and freezing my nuts off as I trek through the streets of Prague or Budapest after midnight. It’s good to soak in the weather. My camera has goaded me to insert myself into ten thousand unlikely places. It has introduced me to so many fascinating faces and voices. It has allowed me to have a much deeper and more sustained intercourse with life. The world has become so much more naked to me thanks to my camera, so how can this not help my writing?
The plastic arts will decay or be physically obliterated. As for literature: Since language is not static but evolves constantly, any literary work is well on its way to becoming obsolete, thus incomprehensible, as soon as it is made, for meaning is always being leeched from it. Still, I’m grateful for each significant glimpse. Two syllables can balm or anchor a life.
–Linh Dinh, poet and photographer
Because I am able to work in different mediums, I always have to ask myself whether the medium I’ve chosen is the best one for the project. Like, “Should this thing I’m writing be turned into a comic? Or should it have illustrations? Does it work best without images?” I think having to answer that makes me consider what I’m doing and helps me understand my goals.
It’s like the difference between telling a story to one friend and then another. It’s the same “me” talking to both people, and it’s the same story, but it is filtered through the interests and experiences that I share with whoever I’m talking to. Maybe with one friend we share a special shorthand for certain things, and with another I leave out certain things so I can reveal them later for dramatic effect. Maybe another friend laughs very easily, so my story becomes funnier simply by hitting her ears. I guess, for all my work, I’m doing it for myself but with the explicit hope that other people will see it and maybe someone else will identify with it. Also for the money.
–Chelsea Martin, poet and illustrator