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
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.]
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.]
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.