Living within the Art: a Poet and Photographer Discuss Their Collaboration-Marjorie Maddox and Karen Elias
Poet Marjorie Maddox and photographer Karen Elias discussed via email Heart Speaks, Is Spoken For, their collaborative collection from Shanti Arts (World Poetry Day, March 21, 2022).
Here is that discussion.
Living within the Art: a Poet and Photographer Discuss Their Collaboration
Marjorie Maddox: Karen, as you know, our work together sprung from the Words and Art Exhibit for The Station Gallery in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. Might you discuss how you approached our initial and subsequent collaborations that ultimately led to Heart Speaks, Is Spoken For? For example, what was/is your process?
Karen Elias: Going back just a little further, the impetus for this project, for me, was discovering a heart-shaped stone on a beach in Maine back in 2018. The stone —craggy, with a deep crack running through its center—spoke to me immediately, becoming a symbol for the grief I’ve been feeling about the state of our world. As it turned out, this theme and its variations would also resonate with you, allowing us to put heart-centered “mappings” at the center of what would become a remarkably productive collaboration.
For the first piece we collaborated on—which was included in the Words and Art Exhibit you mentioned —I created an image for your poem “Treacherous Driving” about your father’s heart transplant. Directed by your references to the accident that gave your father a new heart, I decided to use a collage format, juxtaposing an image of a road-map with that of a blue snow-pack, suggesting the skid-marks and upheaval of a treacherous road. I placed the cracked heart, as both a target and a kind of resurrection, in the middle of that road. And though I made use of some red coloration at the edges to suggest sacrifice and mortality, I wanted that more central, bluely luminous patch of snow to reinforce your last lines: “while winter, a clear, blue thing, / wafted light.” For me, this was a deeply meditative process, looking for ways to make visual an experience in which something beautiful and life-giving arises out of a terrified icy skidding, stalling, coming to a dead-stop: the sacrifice of one life to make another possible.
For each of our subsequent collaborations, the process has been similar. I take time to live with your words, allowing connections to arise almost like dreams, and gradually the images fall into place.
Could you describe your own process? What makes possible the crafting of a poem from a visual image?
Marjorie Maddox: First, let me say that the way you describe the creation of that collage is beautiful and so much of what I wanted to convey in “Treacherous Driving.” Thank you for that.
Second, I like what you said about “living with” the words. My process is somewhat similar. When writing about your composite photographs, I’ve found myself not only “living with” but also “living within” the art. There is, indeed, a surreal quality to the process, like stepping into the narrative of someone else’s dream that suddenly becomes my dream as well. What is the story being told by image and angle? What might be the significance of the objects and their relationship to each other? Am I, as narrator, part of the story or an outside observer? And how does memory come into play? By free-associating, can I, as poet, allow the images to more strongly connect me to something in my own past, to someone else’s life, or to the world around me?
One of the great joys of collaboration is the unexpected turns that the work can take. As you mentioned, I have written quite a bit about the body, and especially, given my father’s unsuccessful heart transplant, about the physical and metaphorical significance of the heart. Thus, a number of the poems are autobiographical. However, inspired by your images, I also was invited in to other narratives: for example, the fairy tale of Snow White, the hunter, and a heart-shaped mulberry tree—or the heart-wrenching murder of George Floyd.
For the former, although you may not have had this in mind with your photograph Heart Tree, I was taken back to a childhood brimming with books and fairy tales, so many of which are haunted by dark woods. This association led me to more research on the story of Snow White and the hunter, which led me, in turn, to further associations (and word pictures) of escape, deliverance, mercy, choice—and from choice, hope. It’s a type of dance between the images we both are creating.
Your photograph Memorial for George Floyd is another such example. In this case, my way in to the photograph began with your title. When I first started writing, I wasn’t yet sure what the image in the photograph was. Was it a fence onto which someone had attached flowers as a type of memorial and onto which you had superimposed our touchstone of a cracked heart? Was it a grated bridge leading to someplace better? And so these images and questions—alongside your title—led me to Lafayette Square, the violent response to a peaceful protest, and the subsequent and infamous photo op at St. John’s Episcopal. (In hindsight, it was good that I didn’t find out until later that the photograph was of your patio table. The struggle to decipher and interpret meaning became important to the poem’s themes.)
Likewise, some of your images that focus on the environment--Mourning Song for the Earth, for example—prompted me to put into words my responses to and/or concerns about what continues to take place around us every day in the here and now.
Thus, I’m interested now in how your many roles—as a poet yourself, as a former professor, and as an activist—influence your photography. And, do you think, these influences enhance our collaboration, help us better “see into” each other’s work? For instance, because my father was a photographer and my aunt and daughter were/are artists, I’m drawn toward these art forms. Even though I’m not a photographer or painter myself, I’ve found that my experiences with these family members and their work influence how I approach a photograph or a painting?
What is your experience?
Karen Elias: I really like your pointing to the unexpected turns the work can take – and the joy that comes of that. So I'll take a little turn here myself to give an example. In working to come up with a response to your poem “The Long and Winding Road,” I was struck by your lines: “as you trudge / on this cracked-pavement / of a path that is your past / and future. . . .” And I realized, as I set a flattened heart-image against a photo of an asphalt road, that the cracks of the heart replicated and extended those of the roadway, revealing the life-lines of lived experience. So, in working with your poem, the heart took on an added dimension for me. Its cracks were no longer just the inroads a wearying world can carve into one's being; they also became all the long and winding roads we've walked, learning to bear witness.
So now to your questions. All of my past and present selves seem to be converging in this recent work—though it's much easier to talk about my activism than about my former academic identity. Sometimes I think the only impact academia has had is that it's given me—in retirement —the freedom to work creatively without having to pour those energies into the grading of papers! But, of course, that's not really fair. Credit must be given to the life-long training that immersion in academia offers in understanding the construction of imaginative worlds, raising questions along the way that you and I are able to play with in practice—not just in the lecture hall. You touch on many of these, Margie, and I think they can apply to worlds made of images as well as those made of words —though what gets asked and answered is determined by the limitations and possibilities of the medium we've chosen. Photography, for example, is, most simply, a way to record the so-called real world. But from the beginning, it has been more than that. The very act of framing involves aesthetic and narrative choices about what gets included and what gets left out. So that even a photo taken in raw camera-mode, untouched by the many creative interventions now available through Photoshop, is already being shaped by the narrative eye behind the lens.
Photography is manipulative, not just in the sense that aesthetic decisions are being made, but also in the sense that typically the narrative “I” behind the lens is allowed to remain invisible and therefore potentially unaccountable as a controlling force. All of which is to say that, in thinking about my own practice, I find myself intentionally moving away from any idea of photography as objective, while at the same time working to make explicit my own subjective agenda.
It's almost too easy to frame a shot of the natural world, for example, in a way that unthinkingly romanticizes it. In so doing are we essentially perpetrating an idea of nature that—in the face of climate change—needs to be considered a false narrative? Are we perhaps using this medium as another way to remain complacent in the face of a growing climate emergency? What choices can we make as photographers, as artists in general, to frame our nature-stories in new ways? Is it possible to use art to envision a new, complex, thriving world? What are the stories we're choosing the arts to tell? These are some of the questions I'm living with as I try to connect my art to my activism.
I notice, in reading these poems for our book, that you often lead us over uncharted territory. We trespass, leave behind old boundaries, travel under shattered skies, encounter fairy tales gone bad. I’m wondering if—in the construction of your imaginative worlds—there might be a similar anti-romantic element at play. And if so, what fantasies are being called into question? And to what ends?
Marjorie Maddox: Karen, what an intriguing question—and perhaps an especially appropriate one on which to draw together the many threads of this conversation. Whether it be through photography, painting, or writing, the driving force of art, in my mind, is to discover (or uncover) truth.
I think of the famous Picasso quote, “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” I also remember a T-shirt I once purchased at a writer’s conference. Emblazoned across the front was a saying attributed to the novelist Tim O’Brien: “Just because it never happened doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” I mention both when discussing with students literature’s impact on our lives.
Art, in its many forms, challenges us to re-see—to re-envision—the world inside and around us. As mentioned earlier, often this involves taking unexpected turns, moving into uncharted territory, and crossing over established boundaries—all on the road to discovery. As Joan Didion explained, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means.” I think the same applies to other forms of expression. Through art, we look past the surface and beyond the cliched and sentimental—not an easy, but a necessary task, especially when addressing such universals as love, grief, and nature. With ekphrasis—and in our case by alternating responses to each other’s work—collaboration expands insight, vision, and discovery.
For example, art allows us to reflect on and rethink the past and how this might affect our and others’ present and future. During our collaborations, yes, I gained new insights while writing about your work, but also when I witnessed your photographic responses to mine. You gave me a new lens with which to view my own writing. For instance, in searching for poems that addressed “matters of the heart,” I reached far back to the late 1980s to “Chiromancy,” a piece that examines an obsessive relationship. Because so much time had passed, I could now view the “love poem” from a more distant and objective perspective. Your ghostly images added a powerful and haunting layer. Together, poem and photograph de-construct the stereotypical symbols of hand and heart.
Interestingly to me, our collection Heart Speaks, Is Spoken For begins with a title that could appear as sentimental. And yet, when examined within the context of the book’s themes, the words Heart Speaks, Is Spoken For can suggest interaction, collaboration, and community, but also tension, role reversal, and crossing of boundaries. Likewise, these last years have pushed society beyond previous understandings of justice and safety. Not surprisingly, then, the no-longer-stone heart also cries out against domestic abuse, social injustice, and environmental crises.
The interplay of poetry/photography, real/imagined, spoken/unspoken often recognizes, confronts, and exposes false or flawed realities. That heart-shaped stone you found in Maine was, after all, cracked. I imagine that it was the crack that most intrigued and inspired us both.
I know that that heart and our collaborative process continue to inspire me. I see it in the way I look at objects and events in my life. I recognize it in similar themes as I compose poetic responses to a series of paintings by my daughter (www.hafer.work), layered collages that also question appearance and reality. The same concerns keep cropping up, the same questions about what it means to be human and living in this beautiful but flawed world. And yet each perspective gives new insight. Each unexpected turn leads to a different discovery.
I am so grateful that you and I were able to walk this path of collaboration together, inspired by each other’s work and a single heart-shaped cracked stone. Thank you for this gift.
Karen Elias: This has been such a rich discussion, Margie. I too am thankful for our work together. It’s been a real pleasure. May we continue turning in uncharted, inspiring, and unexpected directions!
A Description of the Book
In Heart Speaks, Is Spoken For a cracked, heart-shaped stone inspired poet Marjorie Maddox and artist Karen Elias to nuanced portrayals of love, obsession, grief, joy, loneliness, anger, protest, and hope. Looking backward to memories and forward to our responsibility for the earth, their individual visions combine to create a more expansive understanding of our beautiful, complicated world, a world constantly reimagined through the persistence of our fragile, courageous hearts.
About the Photographer and Author
After teaching college English for forty years, Karen Elias is now an artist/activist, using photography to record the fragility of the natural world and raise awareness about climate change. Her work is in private collections, has been exhibited in several galleries, and has won numerous awards. She is a board member of the Clinton County Arts Council where she serves as membership chair and curator of the annual juried photography exhibit.
Professor of English and Creative Writing at Lock Haven University, Marjorie Maddox has published 13 collections of poetry—including Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation (Yellowglen Prize); True, False, None of the Above (Illumination Book Award Medalist); Local News from Someplace Else; Perpendicular As I (Sandstone Book Award), Begin with a Question (Paraclete Press), and the collaboration with Karen Elias Heart Speaks, Is Spoken For (Shanti Arts)—the story collection What She Was Saying (Fomite); four children’s and YA books—including Inside Out: Poems on Writing and Readiing Poems with Insider Exercises (Finalist Children’s Educational Category 2020 International Book Awards), and A Crossing of Zebras: Animal Packs in Poetry; I’m Feeling Blue, Too! (a 2021 NCTE Notable Poetry Book)--Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania (co-editor); Presence (assistant editor); and 650 stories, essays, and poems in journals and anthologies. For more information, please see www.marjoriemaddox.com
Elias and Maddox are engaged in an exciting, mutually inspiring project, combining poetry and photography in creative collaboration. Their work has been exhibited at The Station Gallery (Lock Haven, Pennsylvania). In addition to Heart Speaks, Is Spoken For, collaborations have appeared in such literary, arts, or medical humanities journals as About Place: Works of Resistance and Resilience, Cold Mountain Review, The Ekphrastic Review, The Other Journal, Glint, Masque & Spectacle, Open: Journal of Arts and Letters, and Ars Medica.
Endorsements for Heart Speaks, Is Spoken For
“Via an original and provocative tapestry of contemplative prose and intimate imagery, these two artists take both reader and viewer on a journey laced with personal experiences that ring true with the song of universality. This sojourn reminds us it is possible to witness the Cosmos in a drop of pond water or in the surface texture of a weathered fragment of granite. The wonderfully reductive nature of both word and picture herein remind us that less is most often more, that the unadorned will sometimes bring us to that place where greater realizations dwell. In this realm the poet and photographer have combined talents and successfully set a stage for quiet contemplations that are both worldly and private. Opening one's heart is indeed an act of bravery and love.”
artist Greg Mort, http://www.gregmortcollection.com/, internationally recognized artist with work in many prominent private and public collections, including the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the Smithsonian Art Museum, and the White House
“What enchantment to discover the heart—that most ancient of symbols—in the strikingly fresh and poignant depictions of these exquisite poems and photographs. The pages of this collection fall open to so many of our stories, both individual and collective. The hearts invoked from fairy tales that beat deep in our psyches are joined here by heart transplants, by the national tragedy of George Floyd’s heart stopped by cruelty, by hearts quarantined in windows, and by a cracked stone heart mourning the Earth. These poems and photographs inspire and reflect one another, magically creating the lub-dub of a single heart beating. Reading Heart Speaks, Is Spoken For, we hear our own hearts speaking and being spoken for.”
Judith Sornberger, author of Angel Chimes: Poems of Advent and Christmas
“It is often said that taking photos teaches us to see, and here, Karen shows us that love is everywhere if we just open our eyes. Marjorie’s thoughtful, heartfelt poems take all our grief over darkness and loss and expose it back to the light.”
Lorette C. Luzajic, artist, writer, editor of The Ekphrastic Review
The Ekphrastic Review
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