21st Century Autoimmune Blues
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The Ekphrastic Review: A handful of the poems in your new book are ekphrastic. But in a way, most of these works are inspired by art of some kind, fueled by visual and other creativities. Tell us about that.
Brent Terry: To me, the world is one giant interactive art installation. Even I don’t know what might set my antennae aquiver. In general, though, the two things that make me want to sit down and write are the natural world and other people’s art, particularly music and visual art, most especially painting. Since my poetry tends to treat narrative as a fractured and reassembled mosaic of sound and image, I guess this relationship makes sense. My most thrilling, ecstatic, transformational moments seem to come at concerts, museums and galleries. The first time I visited the Museum of Modern Art in NYC I sat on a bench in a room full of Pollock paintings shaking and weeping. I swear I could actually hear them. I just spent an entire Wolf Alice concert on the edge of leaving my body. As a poet I want to join in a duet with other artists, I want to make people feel like I do at a rock concert, jazz show or symphony, like I did in front of those Pollocks.
Tell us about your process when writing ekphrastic poetry.
My process varies a little depending on whatever work I am writing in response to. Sometimes I riff on one element of a painting, collage or piece of music, then another. These poems tend to be kind of a loose, looping dialogue with the original work. This is especially true when responding to abstract painting or collage. Other times I kind of enter the painting and move around, describing what is happening, or retelling the story of what is happening on the canvas from a new point of view, or in a new moment. A lot of my ekphrastic work is like, “Hey, this makes me think of (or feel) that.” With music, it’s more of a synaesthetic thing: sound making me see – and say – images and textures, colors and events.
How is this different from your process for writing in general?
It is not much different at all. Something catches my eye or ear, I start riffing and free associating, become absolutely obsessed, then come out the other end with a poem and a slightly stunned feeling, wondering, “Wait, what just happened?”
Do you ever teach ekphrastic writing? What are your approaches?
I do teach it. It seems to be a bit more hit or miss than other types of exercises, as it sort of has to match a writer’s innate sensibilities. One thing I do is have the students give a narrative account of what’s happening on the canvas, either in omniscient third person, or from the perspective of a character in the work. Oddly enough, having the student give a narrative account of an abstract or collaged work leads to very exciting, interesting poems. Sometimes I lead them through a guided association exercise, asking questions about the work, which they must answer immediately with a line of poetry. I have had students listen to a piece of music in class, free-writing in response, without regard for sense, then building a poem from that.
Your poetry is difficult to describe. It is swirling, psychedelic, chalk full of references that are stunning in their specificity. How would you explain what you’re doing? Aside from particular artists, films, musicians, etc, what or who are your influences?
I try to notice everything, engage the world with all of my senses. In fact, I can’t turn it off. Everything gets into the head and the heart, then onto the page. We are all, at every moment dealing with an incredible array of thoughts, feelings, memories and sensory stimuli, and though we mostly function by juggling just a very few of these, while making the rest into background noise, my approach is to more or less reject the very possibility of a concise, coherent narrative, and let these myriad wee beasties traipsing the head and heart all hold sway simultaneously. I just try to herd them into the corral that is the poem, let them mill about until they make a sort of sense, tell a sort of story. Or, as I think I mentioned before, make a mosaic that up close seems just a swirl of colour and texture, but at a distance begins to tell a story, paint a picture. So many of my poems are written after a run, where the world has been reduced to a psychedelic kaleidoscope of shape and colour, bits of sound, the kiss of wind, rain or sweat on skin, a whiff of flower or mold, perfume, salt-tang or exhaust. This very much dictates how my poems appear on the page. Whew! Did that even answer your question?
What kinds of art move you the most? Tell us about styles or isms, or about particular artists that speak louder than others.
Abstract art seems to reach out, grab me by the scruff of the neck and yank me in. The first art that made me want to write was definitely Abstract Expressionism, the NY School work of America at mid-century. I too respond strongly to Surrealism, the idea that combining two or more things that are not usually related will help one understand the “real” world more completely. This makes sense to me completely, especially in a world that grows more surreal by the hour. I love the slightly askew realism of Hopper or Ruscha. I can get lost in it, write the journey of finding my way out. Music works this way too. I lose myself in many kinds of music, muddle about in melody, rhythm, thorny thickets of mood and texture, then let this guide the poems that come after. I love French music from the era of Satie, Saint-Saens, Debussy and Ravel. Joe Jackson and Green Day make me see stories in the air. The lush harmonies of Warpaint, the paint-peeling guitars and lovely melodies in the music of the aforementioned Wolf Alice create a delicious tension I try to inhabit or lasso. God, it’s endless, really. Your work, obviously!
What’s next for Brent Terry? What kind of projects do you have in the works?
I am involved in a collaboration with a certain painter/collagist you might know, with each of us responding to the work of the other, work that I hope ends up as a gorgeous, album cover-sized art book, as well as a gallery show involving all the senses. I am beginning work on a collaboration with nature/Jazz/sports photographer Frank Poulin, and am trying to find time to work with jazz legend, bassist Nat Reeves. I am about 110 pages into my second novel, and am writing a collection of personal essays about my life as a runner. So many projects! Keeps the despair at bay.
Read ekphrastic Brent Terry:
The Addictive Futility of Hope
Runners in the Snow
Tinker Bell Gone Bad
Nude Descending a Staircase
Live Model at the Salon for Abject Expressionists
An auto-cento for Joan Mitchell
Painters in Nirvana T-shirts shout colour at canvas,
keep their eyes peeled for the future writhing
in clots of viscous smoke. They swag tradeshow
totebags. They polish their pistols in your blood,
whistle through badlands of slag and ash, flash
their Underoos, blackout drunk and cracking wise
about shotgun weddings or pigment that’ll set
your hair on fire. The river rages with snowmelt.
Remember when silver hammers knocked you
in the knees among summer’s tender tufts?
Here, even the flowers are trying to kill you.
Somebody says a blessing over the tater tots.
Your head is white noise, but your footprints litter
the lawn like eighth-notes thunderclapped
from some sentient symphony. You’re a valentine
with a switchblade inside, geyser of figments
splashed faster than retinas can register. Red,
red pickup truck. Stubblefield crusted with snow.
Hey, maybe you should shatter yourself, seduce
them into swallowing shards. Mayhap you should
hang a mosaic of baby pics and dropped crockery,
murder your crows in a burst of blood
and feathers, conjure an onomatopoeia of spangles
and flash grenades, bluenotes and crab shacks
and stars. You can’t sit still, so you gallop
a hundred different directions, one part pink
ladyslipper, two parts bullet in cahoots with the sky.
Not sin, but satisfaction at first light.
The gods be in your head, your brush ablaze.
Your name? It doesn’t matter.
from 21st Century Autoimmune Blues, Unsolicited Press
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