This Thursday, Rain Taxi will co-present Bay Area poet Gillian Conoley and local troubadour wunderkind Brian Laidlaw in a multimedia showcase, involving projected drawings of Henri Michaux, original and translated poetry and other texts, and composed and improvised music (let it here be known that Laidlaw on vox and guitar will be flanked by California’s Danny Vitali and Minnesota’s Bex Gaunt on multi-instrumental madness). The event celebrates the release of Conoley’s poetry collection Peace, as well as her translations of Michaux, Thousand Times Broken, and Laidlaw’s Amoratorium, a song-cycle about Bonnie and Clyde on vinyl with accompanying poetry chapbook.
Confused? You won’t be as all these artists make magic together on stage. To whet our appetites, we asked the poets to riff a little on how the various disciplines they engage both dovetail and diverge.
Brian Laidlaw: Gillian, let’s get right down to it: What can poetry do that visual art and music can’t? And what can visual art and music do that poetry can’t?
Gillian Conoley: If we think of poetry or “the poetic” as being the ineffable, as something that can’t be said in any other way than in art, then poetry is in music and visual art. Music is certainly in poetry as in “if it ain’t got that swing, it don’t mean a thing” (thank you, Duke Ellington). Visual art has the gesture and movement of music, no? All I know is I couldn’t live without any of these arts and have a hard time separating them. Can you?
Laidlaw: Woof, who really can? I think of all these art forms as delivery systems for the same substance, and “the ineffable” is a great term for that substance. The delivery systems have their own logic and limitations: a song is fixed in time (its 3:38 duration), a drawing is fixed in space (its 12.5 x 9.5 inch area). Poems are special to me because, fundamentally, their content is timeless and spaceless; a poem reconstitutes itself in a reader’s mind.
When I first started writing, my songs and poems closely resembled one another: all metered and rhymed. That formalism is great for songwriting, but it severely limits the terrain in which a poem can roam. Encountering your work—Profane Halo and The Plot Genie were the first books of yours I read—was an absolute watershed moment for me. Your use of poetic form is virtuosic; it induces hallucinations, vertigo and enlightenment. How has your relationship to form changed over time? And (how) do music and visual art insinuate themselves into your poetic forms?
Conoley: Always glad to induce a hallucination. Form: formal form, as in English form, metered and rhymed, I never could do it—I would write horrible things and it seemed like a math I couldn’t do, it almost made me want to cry. But I very much admire people who can do it and who make me forget it’s even there: I love Marianne Moore, for example. Even though I can’t do it I have studied prosody and still like to do so.
My relationship to form has changed a lot over time. When I first started to write, everything was justified left-hand margin, and I learned to break a line and make a stanza, and then I started to think about the page as a material in and of itself and how that might enter the poem—the page more as canvas or field or soundscape came into the writing. I’ve always written in black sketchbooks with no lines on them, where I make a big mess of words and images and phrases; I try to let everything in and not think about it or even think that I am writing a poem. I do this for pages and pages and then I wait for something to coalesce. I’ve learned (or I am still learning) how to wait, to work/trust in the materials. I also write lines I get just walking around into my cell phone–so much more trustworthy than scraps of paper I would lose!
Music has always been in my DNA because my dad and mom ran a small-town rural radio station thirty miles outside of Austin from the late 1940s to the 1980s: country western, soul, Mexican polka, Czech polka, rock ‘n’ roll. Johnny Cash, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex, Elvis, they all came to the station and played live in a little one-room studio lined with egg cartons for acoustics. I was really young, and not even born when Elvis came, so I only remember Joe Tex, but my older sister remembers James Brown. Painting I didn’t get a sense or love for until college, but it is life-long. If there were more time in the day and I didn’t have to work I would maybe try to learn to paint. I see things and write them down. I hear things, too, but my imagination runs more toward the visual than the auditory. I have a poet friend who says she doesn’t see ever, she only hears, so that’s interesting. Everyone has their own path.
I think artists have to be the most patient beings on earth. If you rush or strain, it shows. When do you know a line you get in your head is going to go in a poem or in a song? Or does it matter?
Laidlaw: There’s a Johnny Cash–encounter poem in Peace, and I wondered if it was a little autobiographical . . . what a wild time and place to have been running a radio station. I also love that you describe the pre-poem page as a canvas or field. It makes me think of Annie Dillard’s passages in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that describe how cataract patients, immediately after sight-restoring surgeries, first see the world as a patchwork of undifferentiated colors and shapes. Poems – particularly ones that treat the whole page as a visual field – have the capacity to depict the world in the same, frighteningly fresh, almost newborn way. It’s also in the presence of that fresh/frightening imagery that the most fresh/frightening insights happen; both as a writer and as a reader, those are the moments I live for.
When I’m writing, I’ve learned to dwell in a somewhat trance-like state where lines spontaneously form in my mind’s ear (it’s entirely aural, like your friend – not visual at all for me.) The process allows me to be surprised, even shocked, by the lines I’m writing.
I wanted to ask you one last question, to wrap things up: When audiences (students in particular) encounter unfamiliar music or visual art, they often seem comfortable letting the pieces wash over them, simply enjoying the new aesthetic experience, but when they’re encountering unfamiliar poetry, they seem likelier to resort to an “I don’t get it.” In your own work, how much do you worry about the reader “getting it”? Is there a specific “it” to get?
Conoley: The Johnny Cash encounter is autobiographical! When I was in my twenties I worked as a journalist both at Dallas Morning News and freelance and went on a B-movie film set where Cash was acting—really bad movie, I don’t even know if it ended up getting released. I didn’t, after all, write an article, so that part’s true, too.
The “I don’t get it,” the “it” there is to get: I think that has to do with a kind of default mode humans can go to when it comes to language. We have expectations of language that we don’t necessarily have when it comes to paint or sounds in music. Language, when we encounter it, we often think it is going to tell us something or give us information. So the first step in reading poetry is to let go of that expectation, and to welcome in the other aspects of language: the sonic, the aural, its ability to trigger the visual in the mind.
This takes us back to the ineffable, where we began our conversation. Sometimes poetry is taught early on, say in elementary school, as though it is symbolic and there are symbols one must figure out: that’s the “get it” part. When really, if there is a symbol in a poem — and so many poems don’t even contain one — if there is a symbol, if the symbol is truly acting in its full-force, it is huge and associative and reaches us at an almost subliminal, subconscious level that one couldn’t even begin to paraphrase.
Having said that, though, it doesn’t mean that poetry is just this open art that is whatever the reader wishes to make of it. Of course there is intent, but what’s key for readers first coming to poetry is to open themselves up to what language can do when it isn’t busy just giving information. It’s a song, it’s talismanic; it reaches the intellect, the heart, and the body.