Sunday, April 25, 2010

Gretchen E. Henderson

Gretchen E. Henderson received the 2010 Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer’s Prize from &NOW Books and Lake Forest College for her forthcoming hybrid novel, Galerie de Difformité. Her poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and cross-genre writings can be found in varied journals, including The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, The Southern Review, Denver Quarterly, Witness, Black Warrior Review, Double Room, New American Writing, The &NOW Awards: The Best Innovative Writing, and elsewhere, with an invitation to participate in her collaborative project here. Recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize, she is an Affiliated Scholar in English at Kenyon College, where she will be a Peter Taylor Fellow at this summer’s Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop.

From Galerie de Difformité

Exhibit C

Color is a chronicle of chemistry, fueled by desire. First came nature, then impulses to imitate its true colors. Harnessing ocher, lampblack, hematite (from the Greek word for “blood”), indigo (from Baghdad and Bengal), cinnabar (from Spain: purified, synthesized, ground to certain fineness), color-seekers sought the marrow of madder, fixed with mordents, to spread red, getting white from eggshells or calcinated bird bones. Pliny and Vitruvius described the ten thousand shells of mollusks needed to furnish a gram of royal purple (a recipe that varied with grades of murex found north and south; a recipe lost with the Fall of Rome). An array of activities, across eras and areas, secreted the spectrum’s secrets. [To read more of this, find Exhibit C in the online gallery and follow instructions.]

Exhibit M

It’s a matter of digging up a body. Digging up and into a body: of myths, any legend, perhaps an affliction that the French called le mal d’afrique, named for visitors to Africa, who found they could not leave. Perhaps, it had to do with something evolutionary. The malady preceded explorations into the continental interior, creeping into foreign dreams and magnetizing seekers toward the mysterious source of the Nile. For centuries, the god-like river with five mouths flowed east to west at the proposition of Herodotus’ Histories, which also suggested the invention of years from stars and recorded the appearance of seashells on mountains and sand-colored clay in Syria, red soil in Libya, and black crumbly silt in Egypt and Ethiopia. Ivory, gold, and beeswax drew traders of beads, cloth, and metal from Sri Vijaya and beyond. China, India, Arabia. Caravans then crept inland—Kilwa and Lindi to Lake Nyasa, from Bagamoyo and Mbwamaji to Tabora to Ujiji, from Pangani and Tanga past Mount Kilimanjaro—as cultures and languages entangled at their roots, branched and sought more soil and sky. Entangling like arms, legs, bodies. [To read more of this, find Exhibit M in the online gallery and follow instructions.]

Exhibit P

Bodies on bodies, three breathe into one. A love triangle, cloaked in black, exposes a red robe and mouth, roving. Without resuscitation, theirs is a mastery of manipulation, a laying on of hands, under skirts, to hold and feign life. As a triumvirate: the master directs the head, shoulders, right hand; an assistant controls the left; and a third manages legs and feet, shuddering to life, as a puppet rises in a Bunraku theater. Hollow-headed, wigged, repainted with blinking eyes and clasping hands, Hisamatsu or Princess Yaegaki takes the stage in a cotton-stuffed robe over a belted kimono, coordinated by three consorts wearing the color of nothing, as a chanter and shamiesen (thick, thin, or medium-necked, laced with strings, to play heart-strings of listeners) invokes The New Ballad or The Dance of the Two Sambosas. [To read more of this, find Exhibit P in the online gallery and follow instructions.]

How did your collaboration begin?

My project has been brewing for years in manuscript form, but the call for collaborators (or “Subscribers,” to use parlance from the project) didn’t begin until Fall 2009, after the Galerie de Difformité found a publisher, and after most “Exhibits” had been published in journals. (“Exhibits” are only one element of the book and are intermixed, not alphabetically, among varied genres and images; the book itself is structured as an art catalogue, with “choose your own adventure” directives to navigate a reader through varied paths, via the Exhibits, a narrative epistolary, sonnet cycle, faux scholarship, definitions, illustrations & artworks, in a kind of a curiosity cabinet dedicated to deformity.) Since the project straddles varied notions of the Book, materially and virtually, I hope that deformations by “Subscribers” will collectively populate the online gallery as a kind of installation. The collaboration is only beginning—

What are the rules or parameters for the collaboration?

In this first stage of collaboration, “Subscribers” (a one-time commitment) download an electronic copy of a textual “Exhibit” before the book’s publication (forthcoming in Fall 2011 from &NOW Books, with distribution by Northwestern UP). “Exhibits” are more or less prose poems or micro-essays, narrated by one of the novel’s main characters: a deformed reincarnation of Dante’s Beatrice. Subscribers can deform “Exhibits” however they like—visually, aurally, sensorily—then email the Undertaker a photograph, audio, or video metamorphosis to post on the website. Submissions received by JUNE 1, 2010 will be considered for inclusion in the published book; thereafter, the online gallery will continue to grow. All submissions will be featured in the online gallery. When submitting, it’s appreciated if you include a list of materials, description of the process of deformation, and title. (This information will be worked into future documentation of the project.) If Subscribers have a personal website or link to their other work, I welcome the chance to include that, so the Galerie de Difformité increasingly networks outwards—more details here . Additional invitations will be included in the published book, allowing readers to deform the book-object in ways that, as of yet, I can only dream. My hope is for some of these deformations to become part of a traveling exhibition.

How do people most often deform the text? Visually, aurally, etc.?

Given the traditionally-visual orientation of galleries, most “Exhibits” have been deformed visually, using a range of materials (e.g., paint, yarn, ice, transparency, soap) and methods (e.g., drawing, collaging, folding, printing, erasure), metamorphosing from a tree-sized mobile to bracelets to a bird (a sampling is shown here). Since the project is only in beginning stages, the answer to this question may change over time. Some deformations tend to be more derivative, while others take on a life of their own: their own forms, albeit qualified here as “deformed.” As for what deformations may come: beyond visual variations across varied media, I wish “Exhibits” to be translated into other languages (ancient Greek to Arabic, Braille to ASL), which isn’t to neglect other senses like taste and smell: some Subscribers may decide to make or bake edible “Exhibits.” (The closest thing yet: my puppy chewed up some “Exhibits” while I was away on a residency and while my husband was at work; when he, horrified, sent me a photo, I was delighted and posted it in the online gallery—since it seemed her genuine way of meeting the text.) Wherever and however anyone meets the Page, genuinely engaging with their own skills, arts, sensibilities—that interests me. In a related vein, I hope some young children will participate to meet the mysterious forms of letters and words, to make meanings as they see fit. More aural deformations might emerge over the course of the project: sung or chanted or otherwise composed, read at variant paces, translated into other languages and spoken… Even in English, shifts in emphases will shift meanings (as happens with heteronyms, but even a simple sentence: You are here. You are here. You are here), as will varied intonations and accents. Morphemes and phonemes and syllables can float around as suffixes and prefixes and roots, becoming building blocks for new words and new word orders: actual and invented. There are ways to approach this project from varied disciplines, macroscopically and microscopically, pushing against a narrow definition of deformity. The important thing to remember: whatever the background and approach, it’s not enough to imagine the deformation; Subscribers must represent the deformation. The how and why and what of that representation ties into the heart of the project.

Have you collaborated before? How was this experience different than other collaborations?

Having grown up studying music, I collaborated with other musicians without thinking to call it “collaboration.” For a few years in graduate school, I collaborated with a scientist and used that term (an illuminating experience for both of us, navigating dual citation methods, conference presentation formats, and the like—balancing between what C.P. Snow famously called the “two cultures” divide). Teaching is highly collaborative, and my written work has straddled the visual arts for some time. In addition to some art classes, I participated in a documentary film atelier in college, and more recent years brought collaborations with some artists on broadsides (one at an artist colony, another through the collaborative community of Broadsided; scroll down here for these images). Although each broadside process was different, the artists generally responded to my poetry in a kind of reverse ekphrasis. I was interested in a longer-term collaboration with more back-and-forth, pursuing a process with multiple artists (broadly defined), to see what might evolve through collective responses that could shape a published process and product.

The Galerie de Difformité would-and-will-be nothing without its Subscribers. Since selected collaborative images will be included in the published book, submissions will influence its future reading. Along with other means and methods of deformation, images from the website also will be available to print and affix into the published book to alter it further. My hope is that each “reading” will contribute to a larger conversation about deformity, as each copy of the book physically and psychically deforms in any given reader’s hands.

On another level, it feels like I’m collaborating with historical figures, periods, and tropes. Putting these voices in conversation with one another (juxtaposed sometimes smoothly, elsewhere jarringly), I am compelled to listen and hope others will, too. Thus, the note from da Vinci about “How to Read”: “If the sound is in ‘m’ and the listener in ‘n,’ the sound will be believed to be in ‘s’ if the court is enclosed at least on 3 sides against the listener.” Analogy may be made with Galerie de Difformité: if a sound is made in one Exhibit while Gentle Reader resides in another, (s)he may seek out additional Exhibits to coordinate the orchestrations.

As a side note: according to the OED, “collaborate” as a word didn’t originate until the late-nineteenth century in English, signifying “to work together.” As a concept, this existed long before the word, which leads me to wonder what current concepts might be making spaces for future words? In the mid-twentieth century, another meaning of “collaborate” arose: “to co-operate traitorously with the enemy.” “Collaborative(s)” arose in tandem…and now there’s a buzz about the word and related activities, which continue to evolve across media, disciplines, thought systems, language itself.

Has watching the various deformed incarnations appear changed your thoughts or feelings about the original text?

Each submission shifts my relationship with its corresponding “Exhibit,” not to mention the larger project: sometimes subtly, sometimes profoundly. Phrases and themes surface and resurface, articulated and unarticulated, rearranged and reimagined in different dimensions. The range becomes interesting as more deformations populate each “Exhibit” of the online gallery. For example, from a single sentence, one Subscriber staged a scene of stilt-walking, while another reduced an entire Exhibit to the size of a pearl. Each piece can be taken on its own terms, but also collectively, continuing to change the larger contextualization. This variation relates to my choice of character of Dante’s Beatrice (a deformed reincarnation, that is) who appears differently in representations across history. (To view a few of her images, visit Exhibit A.) Her form is de-formed again and again—but not in a negative sense, per se. There’s more to say about that, but in a nutshell: her ability to change serves as a kind of guide for this project more than some static, historic sense of self.

Has anything happened during the collaborative process that surprised you?

I just finished a two-month residency at Lake Forest College, thanks to the Madeleine P. Plonsker Prize. There and at Kenyon College, a handful of classes participated in my project: a vibrant experience. I love working with students, and the book’s inter-disciplinary, inter-media nature lends itself to deform to suit syllabi from varied disciplines and levels. I’m interested in continuing to work on the Galerie de Difformité as a pedagogical project. (If any teachers who read this interview are interested in using the project with their classes, please feel free to contact me.) Another surprise occurred when my publisher said that selected Subscriber images could be included in the published book—a dream come true. I wasn’t sure that would work with the budget. The folks at &NOW and Lake Forest College have been great supporters of this project, for which I’m extremely grateful. As I continue to reshape the manuscript to accommodate and be enriched by the collaborative contributions, I look forward to receiving more submissions.

How do you feel about the finished product?

The project is far from finished—only in beginning stages. I won’t be able to answer this question for a few years, at least. I’m excited by the potential of the Galerie de Difformité to span a number of disciplines and media, from book arts to installation, trying to (en)gage a range of visual, sonic, and other sensory logics. I’m embedding the project in varied technologies to see what / how / who / where / why the book deforms, asking a number of questions in the process: By “reading” text as object, how do we engage past and future forms of the book, not to mention varied literacies? What knowledges and expectations do we, as readers and/or artists, bring to the Page? What activities activate language? How do we read texts, contextualized and de-/re-contextualized, within and outside of book form? Materially and technologically, what parts of this project will deform over the lifetime of this project so as to become inaccessible? How is the term “accessibility” applied to texts, and what does that mean—especially as paralleled with accessibility in political, spatial, and temporal terms? What can we learn about sociocultural beliefs about deformity by engaging in material acts of deformation? How does collaborative work function in terms of the Author, authorship and authority? These questions are but a few that tug at the back of my mind. If you’re interested in watching the project evolve and deform further, or want to participate in its deformation, please follow the directions and/or join its Facebook page. As one might expect, all rules are subject to deform.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Neil Aitken & Juhi Bansal

Neil Aitken is the author of The Lost Country of Sight which won the 2007 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry and the founding editor of Boxcar Poetry Review. His poems have appeared in Barn Owl Review, Crab Orchard Review, diode, The Drunken Boat, Ninth Letter, Poetry Southeast, Sou'wester, and elsewhere. Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, he grew up in Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and the western parts of the United States and Canada. He currently lives in the Koreatown district of Los Angeles and is pursuing a PhD in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California.

Juhi Bansal, an Indian composer raised in Hong Kong, is currently working towards a doctorate in music composition at the University of Southern California, studying under Donald Crockett. Her previous teachers have included Erica Muhl, Frank Ticheli, Frederick Lesemann, and Stephen Hartke.

Her music, with its eclectic mix of ethnic and colouristic elements, is starting to gain international acclaim. Recent performances include her piece Gulden Draak, at the Oregon Bach Festival Composer’s Symposium, her Piano Trio (played by Pacific Music Festival orchestra academy members) at Kitara hall in Sapporo, Japan, and her flute and percussion trio, T’tuooll, at the SICPP New Music festival in Boston. Her music has also been performed by percussionist Scott Deal and vocalist Jenna Lyle, at Indiana University, Purdue, and Cleveland State University, respectively, as well as numerous performances in Los Angeles.

Recent commissions include a song cycle for the Lotte Lehman Foundation, Black, for the guitarist Connie Shue, and two multi-percussion solos for recitals at the University of Southern California. Recent awards and honours include third prize in the Lotte Lehman Foundation’s Art Song Competition, 2009 and 2006 ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer awards, and a fellowships to attend the Seasons Music Festival and Pacific Music Festival.

You may download a sample of their collaboration at The Lost Country of Sight

How did your collaboration begin?

NA: Juhi and I were in the Writer and Composer at USC which pairs up poets from the PhD English program with composers from the graduate music composition program to work on three different collaborations over the course of the semester. The pairings were switched with each project in order to allow each poet and composer the opportunity to work with a number of different people. I had heard Juhi's work with the other poets and admired both the richness of the tone of her work and variety of approaches she employed to create the best blending of text and music. Needless to say I was very excited was she asked to work with me on the last project. We were so pleased with "Halfway" (the piece that was produced for the class), that we decided to continue the collaboration. Over the next few months, I supplied three more poems which Juhi arranged into a longer work.

JB: Neil and I were together in a class at USC called Writer and Composer, where each composer is assigned a poet (or each poet a composer), and we work on three projects through the course of the semester. For each one, the poet gives their composer something they've written that they would like set to music, and then they collaborate to write a piece. I heard Neil's poetry over the course of the class when he had other composers assigned to him, and absolutely loved it - so for the final project (when we were able to choose our own poets), I asked to work with him.

The second movement of the song cycle (Halfway), was the final project for the class, and I enjoyed setting Neil's poetry so much that we turned it into a much larger piece over the months that followed.

What were the rules or parameters for the collaboration?

NA: We didn't establish any particular set of rules. In fact, given my lack of formal musical training, I felt that it was wise just to let Juhi do her thing :) Although for the most part we worked independently, we did meet together whenever it felt like a piece was coming together or there were important editing decisions to be made. I was really impressed with the time Juhi took to ask questions to understand the emotional tone and trajectory of each poem -- I felt this helped tremendously and allowed us to be on the same page when deciding if lines needed to be trimmed, words dropped, or phrases repeated.

JB: There weren't any, specifically, although in the course of the class, we were expected to be writing classical art songs. I basically took Neil's texts as a starting point to sketch out musical forms and brainstorm ideas, and then met up with Neil to play through what I'd sketched out. We'd talk about it, I'd write some more music, and then we'd discuss it again.

Have you collaborated before outside of your art form before? How was this experience different than other collaborations?

NA: Not really. I have written some ekphrastic poems inspired by images and the occasional poem sequence inspired by certain pieces of music, but in terms of actually working with a living artist in a full collaboration, this project was a first for me. Interestingly enough the first piece that Juhi and I worked on was an ekphrastic poem inspired by a photograph of a woman attempting to swim across the English Channel. While the image provided the momentum for writing the poem, the poem soon triggered other associations which allowed it to go in new directions. In this respect, an ekphrastic poem is really more like an oracular experience, like reading Tarot cards or Rorschach inkblots. When working with another artist there's less of a sense of "reading" and more of a sense of "listening and dialogue." The image is a starting place, a lens, and an obsession to be explored and interpreted -- the collaborating artist provides something much different, a voice which can blend with the voice of the poem, filling in some of the dark spaces and absences, strengthening the highs, deepening the lows, and creating an experience that extends far beyond the borders of the page.

JB: I haven't actually collaborated with another type of artist before, although I have written pieces inspired by poetry or visual art. It's quite different, and much more exciting working with a live person!

Did Juhi provide any feedback on the poems or Neil make any suggestion on the music?

NA: As Juhi worked on the pieces she'd let me know what she liked and what she felt might be too repetitive or awkward to sing. I sometimes have a tendency to create long lines or run several images together. While this might work with the eye on the page, the singer's voice operates differently and needs rests and variety. Having sung in the occasional church choir, I was highly sympathetic to these suggestions. We worked together to ensure that the poem's meaning wasn't drastically changed. I felt that the changes Juhi suggested were ones that I could certainly live with. Once the piece was performed, in many cases it was impossible to detect where those changes had occurred -- to me that's a sign of success.

JB: Neil did give a few minor suggestions about the music, but generally he let me go about it my own way. I remember on the Halfway movement, I sketched out the opening with some sound effects in the instruments, to create an atmosphere before the music started, and although Neil didn't say anything at the time, I could tell he thought it was just a little weird. Once he actually heard it though, I think he really liked the texture.

What did you learn from your fellow collaborator?

NA: Working with Juhi taught me a great deal about what music can do that poetry cannot - or at least what poetry does differently to create similar effects. Writers tend to rely a great deal on repetition and escalation to create dynamic flow through a piece. Composers can shape the music behind the words, make use of counterpoint, and even more dramatically employ silence to create a stronger emotional experience for the audience. The lines Juhi trimmed and phrases she repeated tended to be places where I was using language to create a rhythmic or emotional effect that she could create more simply through music.

JB: A lot about how musical shaping, forms and motives reflect those in poetry.

Did anything happen during the collaborative process that surprised you?

NA: To be honest, the final product surprised me. Although I'd heard bits and pieces as Juhi was working on the long piece, I hadn't heard a performance of the complete work before its first public performance. When it was performed, I was surprised at how the synergy between text and music had created a brand new experience, how clearly and intuitively Juhi had grasped the emotional core of each poem, and how deeply the resultant work moved me, even though these were the same words that I'd written and with which I was already quite familiar.

JB: I was actually pleasantly surprised at how much freedom Neil gave me with the music. He was very accepting of all the directions I took with the music, but he did voice objections if he really didn't like something, which was fantastic.

How do you feel about the finished product?

NA: As you might glean from my other responses, I am very very proud of this collaboration and am excited to be working again with Juhi on another project. The collaboration gave me the rare opportunity to encounter my own poetry for the first time through the lens of another artist.

JB: I really love the finished product - Neil's poems were absolutely inspiring to work with, and I think they really helped me write better music. We're actually collaborating on another set of songs I'm writing towards a commission by the Lotte Lehman foundation later this year, as well.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Third Mind

There's a new essay out in the current issue of Gulf Coast called "The Third Mind: American Collaborative Poetry & Its Roots" by Dean Gorman. The essay examines the history of collaboration, from the Japanese renga to the French Surrealists to the New York School in the 1950s. Most interestingly (at least to me) was the discussion of collaboration in contemporary American poetics and the knee-jerk distrust from some readers of collaborative work concerning the question of authorship. Gorman discusses T.S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" and the role of the artist in submission to the art and the extinction of the personality. He goes on to write:
The romantic concept of the Individual, which survives in Eliot's argument even as he questions it, will probably never go away. Nine out of ten book-flap blurbs will still use the adjective "singular" to describe poetic voice or vision. Yet as we move further into an era of published collaborations from American poets, the idea of ownership should become less and less of a concern for those writing and publishing. Poets will continue to work together to create new forms and hybrid language, and journals and small presses will continue to unabashedly support these projects. I don't expect every meeting of the minds to be historic--far from it. If anything, I harbor some of the same stereotypes about collaborations as those readers, critics and publishers who stand in the way of its mainstream potential. Yet I am optimistic of its future, its viability--its endless experiment.

I recommend picking up an issue of Gulf Coast for the full essay.

Also worth checking out is the current issue of Tin House which has an exquisite corpse by Mary Jo Bang, Nick Flynn, Alex Lemon, Matthea Harvey, Eileen Myles, and D. A. Powell.