The Ekphrastic Review: Talk to us a bit about Kay Sage. Who is she? How did you encounter her? What led to your decision to immerse yourself in her work to create this book of ekphrastic poetry?
Nadia Arioli: Kay Sage was a surrealist painter who lived in lived 1898 – 1963. I encountered her painting I Saw Three Cities at the Phoenix Art Museum circa 2002, when I was around twelve years old. I looked at the plaque and committed to memorizing her name—which, thankfully, is pretty easy to remember. I then forgot for fifteen years. One day, I thought, who was that painter again? And dug around in my memory until I pulled her out. The reason I decided to write about her was that no one seemed to know about her or care. In that surrealist exhibit from my childhood, she only had one painting in the whole thing and that was the one I remembered. I wanted people to know who she was. It was also important for me to write about something I love—and I really love her paintings, the stillness, the precision.
How would you describe Kay Sage’s art to someone who hasn’t seen it, and who hasn’t yet read your book of poetry?
Like I said above, she’s a surrealist painter. She uses precise brushstrokes to create landscapes. Her landscapes are often dreary—with signature gray-green light. Her paintings often have architectural elements in them, such as scaffolding or pyramids. Like a real landscape, there are often a horizon and shadows. But her paintings are too still, too frozen to be mistaken for photorealism. Her paintings are places you would want to visit but wouldn’t want to stay.
Tell us about your process in writing ekphrastic poems, and in creating this project as a whole.
The funny thing is, I only meant to write one poem—the poem for the aforementioned I Saw Three Cities. Things got wildly out of hand because I fell in love with her other paintings too. I wrote poems for her paintings I could find online. When Stephen Miller published her Catalogue Raison (Sage’s complete works), I spent more money than I had on that book. I picked out the paintings that spoke to me the most.
It was important to me to vary the poems in style. Rather than being purely descriptive of the paintings, I wanted to include Sage’s biographical details, some personal details, comments on the time period, and larger themes. I adore ekphrasis (clearly), but I know I would get bored if I told the truth straight.
I also wanted there to be a kind of arc to the book. But I didn’t want to do a purely biographical arc (this happened to Sage, then Sage did that, roughly at the same time this was painted) but more of an emotionally complete story—like how a well-constructed album has a beginning, middle, and end.
What was the moment for you when it all came together?
I would say when I was writing one of the last pieces, actually. Fittingly, it became clear to me what I was writing about was time-travel. Is what we leave behind a kind of time-travel? Are paintings souvenirs of the past? That is when I realized the overall shape of the book—it’s a Mobius strip!
How does this collection differ from or compare to other creative work that you do? Do you usually write about art and artists?
Having a singular hyper-focus is par for the course for me. I like to make collections that follow an arc. I had a chapbook on animals, a chapbook on road signs, and a forthcoming chapbook on television shows. My full-length was called Juice and about, you guessed it, juice. But this is the first time I’ve written about an artist or other historical figure.
Tell us about a poem here that was especially challenging in some way. Why? What happened
I would say “No Passing,” which you graciously agreed to publish. The painting has this wonderful recurring motif of upright concrete beds. I wanted to use a poem with a repeating structure to echo the painting. A villanelle or a sestina felt too benign or lyrical for how ominous and crushing the painting is. So I set out to invent my own MAD LIBS-style formal constriction to see what shook lose. I must say, I’m very pleased with the outcome.
Tell us about a poem here that is especially meaningful to you, and why.
My favourite poem I wrote for the collection “Bird in the Room” (published in As It Ought to Be). Sage painted this one right after her husband, fellow surrealist painter Yves Tanguy, died of an aneurism. The weird thing is, the previous day, a bird entered their home, and, according to superstition, if this occurs, someone who lives in the home will die. I wanted to explore how grief shapes perception of time. The casualty of the poem is backwards. The year the speaker’s husband dies, she stops eating fruit. Her house fills up with fruit pits, which causes a bird to get lost in her house. The bird kills her husband. This is, of course, a paradox, but I have found grief truly does work that way—beginnings and endings get all kinds of jumbled.
What do you hope the reader takes away when they close the last page?
Oh! That’s a big question. I would say I hope they realize Sage’s significance as an artist. She really is amazing and grossly overlooked. But that is the sort of takeaway one might get from a biography or exhibit, not specific to my book. So, I would say, I hope the reader realizes that everyone who has survived trauma are time-travelers. And that’s okay—the world can still be full of miracles and tenderness. You just have to hold yourself still. We can be still, together.
What’s next for you? Are you working on something that you want to tell us about?
I would like a big nap. But also, I am working on a sequence of poems called Grendel’s Mother Considers. I have a few coming out in Mom Egg Review, Saltbush, 1-70 Review, and Ocotillo Review. There is a particular loneliness that comes with being a mother. There’s a particular loneliness that comes with being a monster. My subject happens to be both.
Pick up a copy of Be Still at Kelsay Books.
Pick up a copy of Be Still on Amazon.
On No Passing by Kay Sage
All liminal journeys come to an end,
a point through which there is no passing.
I have pillow imprints on my cheeks.
Death isn't what it used to be.
I would know. I've been there before.
I have come to an end,
a journey through which there is no passing.
I have point pricks on my cheeks.
Pillows aren't what they used to be.
Death would know. Death has been here before.
All death has come to an end.
I am that which there is no passing.
I have pillow imprints on my journeys.
My points aren't what they used to be.
My cheeks would know, having been there before.
All pillows come to an end.
Death there is no passing.
I have my own imprints on the inside of my cheeks.
Journeys aren't what they used to be.
I don't know the point of changing.
All points come to an end,
a pillow through which there is no passing.
I have death imprints on my cheeks.
I am not what I used to be.
Journeys are not just for the unknown.
On South to Southwesterly Winds Tomorrow by Kay Sage
I am dumb and heavy
and not at all like the ginkgo tree.
The leaves fan out like a two-headed
boy I saw in a museum once--
two faces attached by jaw.
The trees go in pairs too, male and female
with acorns and ovum. The branches
are high, punctuated by light.
Their genome has more than ten
times the DNA pairings than we do.
It is no surprise, then, they survived
Hiroshima, atoms holding firm
to bark, roots, and leaves.
All one place, not moving.
I am dumb and heavy,
and not all like your beehives,
motion pressing into light. I thought
they were filing cabinets given
over to hill and brush, but you said
to come closer and I will show you
not you, a hundred thousand not you.
When a beekeeper dies, you must tell
the bees when the ground is still fresh.
But all over, the workers are leaving,
and there is no ceremony for that.
I take my leavings slow, and leave
no sweetness, no remembrances of light.
I am dumb and heavy, and not at all
like filing cabinets in police back offices,
filled up with cards of missing children.
On Christmas Eve, five siblings stay up,
too excited to sleep. Their other four siblings go to bed.
Their mother answers the telephone late at night.
A man's voice asks for someone
no one has heard of. Then the voice laughs
and hangs up. The mother thinks she
hears footsteps on the roof,
but doesn't think anything of it.
The house with twelve people inside
catches on fire, and the five siblings who
had stayed up all disappear.
I have tried to find things to
ache into, like putting down a hearty root
or pouring honey from a box,
or leaving a record no one believes or reads.
But nothing fits into grief frames. They
hang empty and overhead like unblinking
vultures. South to southwesterly winds
tomorrow will blow them away, no doubt,
and nothing will be left of my face.
Nadia Arioli is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Thimble Literary Magazine and a multi-disciplinary artist. Arioli’s poetry has been nominated for Best of the Net three times and can be found in Cider Press Review, Rust + Moth, San Pedro Review, McNeese Review, Whale Road Review, West Trestle Review, As It Ought To Be, Voicemail Poems, Bombay Literary Magazine, and other publications. Essays have been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart and can be found in Hunger Mountain, Heavy Feather Review, Angel Rust, and elsewhere. Collages and scribblings have been featured as the cover of Permafrost, as artist of the month for Kissing Dynamite and Rogue Agent, and in Poetry Northwest. Arioli has chapbooks with Dancing Girl, Cringe-Worthy Poetry Collective, and Spartan, and a full-length with Luchador Press.
The Ekphrastic Review
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