Desiring visual texts
A collage and embroidery dialogue
After swift exchanges at a University of Pennsylvania conference on April 13–14, 2012, Maria Damon, with a practice of weaving and cross-stitch embroidery, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, with a practice of collage and collage poems, decided to ask each other some questions about this work, their desires to do it and its rationale, given the full-scale scholarly careers that they both have. That is, they decided to talk to each other about their visual texts. So each sent questions to both, and both answered all the questions. They propose their discussion as a way of finding more out about these practices and their meanings. The exchange was conducted by email in April through June 2012.
Links to some of their visual work to be found here:
Question 1) How and when and why did you begin doing them [i.e., visual art items]; what was at stake in this decision (also what relation does this have to your “other” work-in-the-world — teaching; writing)? When did you “begin to decide” to do embroidered texts (MD) and collage (RBD) — how did you instantiate this decision to begin? About how long has this been going on? Elaborate! I should have used the word “praxis” in this question.
Maria Damon: I began to “do” counted cross-stitch as a child (eight or ten or so) in Denmark, where my mother would take me and my sisters during the summers when my father was conducting fieldwork in Turkey or the Solomon Islands. Mother’s family was centered outside the city of Silkeborg, and we spent our summers in the farmhouse, more like a manor house, where her father lived. It was a somewhat stultifying peasant-aristocracy/provincial environment, and other than the English-language books we stocked up on before leaving the States, handwork and consumption of rich dairy products and baked goods with elderly relatives were among the few diversions available. Once or twice during the summer we would go to downtown Silkeborg to the shop of Frøkken Ingebord Lund, an elderly lady who had made my mother’s wedding outfit (a black skirt/suit and a cream-colored silk blouse with eyelet embroidery), and pick out cross-stitch kits for pillows, bellpulls, etc. Eventually we stopped going to Denmark when the airfares for children were no longer as generous — after my older sister turned twelve. In the early 1970s I found some old cross-stitch pattern books from the 1950s among my mother’s things and also at around the same time (first year in college, 1974) started collecting the calendars put out by the Håndarbejtet’s Fremme (Handcraft Guild), which featured one cross-stitch pattern per month along themes (herbal or medicinal plants, roses, seasonal berries, horoscope signs, etc.). My favorites were by a designer named Gerda Bengtsson; try Google-imaging her name and you’ll see what I mean. I often made little flowering herb pieces for friends and family.
Incidentally [here Maria responds to Rachel’s question about knowing Danish] my Danish used to be far more confident, but at a child's level, where it has remained to the extent that it still exists at all. I can talk about barnyard animals, sibling squabbles, and the like. Apparently my sister and I had strong enough Jysk (Juttish, peasantish) accents when we were little that a Danish lady (a Copenhagener) noticed it in Harvard Square, followed us to our source, and became close friends with my mother for some years.
The embroidery habit became literary much later, in 2000. I felt inspired by Lee Ann Brown’s visit to Minnesota in 2000 for our Poetry as Theory/Theory as Poetry symposium to make her a little piece with a phrase from one of her poems, the phrase “Tender Buttons” (after her press), and a few rosebuds from a Bengtsson pattern. I have no image of it because it was a gift and it took several years before I imagined that these little tokens could become worthy of documentation; they were simply gifts. Next came a far more ambitious piece, “X(exoxial)-stitch,” for my collaborator mIEKAL aND, who operates Xexoxial Editions and was a founding member of the Xexoxial Endarchy “multi-arts” nonprofit organization. The piece was a series of X’s, E’s, and O’s drawn from a small pamphlet of letter patterns I’d filched from a royalist apartment I’d stayed at in Paris when I was eighteen on scholarship from my girls’ school and en route to college. I had also, in the interim, had the ambition to stitch a skirt with my favorite literary sayings on it, but I only got as far as two: Genet’s “We cannot suppose a creation which does not spring from love” and Stein’s “In the midst of writing there is merriment.” I still have the skirt but can’t fit it anymore, plus it’s white, which is a stupid color for a skirt.
The third piece, “Reveal Codes: Real Ode for Reality,” I made on sabbatical (2002–2003), for internet scholar Rita Raley, who had been a dear colleague at the University of Minnesota until she left for UC-Santa Barbara. Next, after the US invaded Iraq and there was heated discussion about it on the Poetics List, I made a couple of pieces for Nick Piombino (whom I did not know and had never met) and Stephen Vincent (whom I had met once in SF), because of a dream Stephen reported on Poetics, about our all protesting the war by embroidering the word “POETRY” on our sleeves. I also made “Tiny Arkhive” for Adeena Karasick after I started working on a paper on her long poem “The Wall” for a conference in Edmonton, which eventually developed into the chapter in Radical Poetics/Secular Jewish Culture (in which both Adeena and Rachel have chapters also).
Still I didn’t think of these as part of my literary practice, but a private and relational hobbyist tributary running a course parallel to my scholarly and poetic activities. It wasn’t until several years later when a few visual poets were organizing a show in Miami through Spidertangle, the visual poetry listserv mIEKAL had initiated, that mIEKAL suggested I send a couple of pieces to the show. After the piece for Lee Ann, I had developed the practice of sending the pieces to mIEKAL for him to scan, and then sending them on to their intended recipients. (I’ve since gotten my own scanner.) It was and continues to be important for me that this practice function on a gift economy rather than an exchange economy, though there have been exchanges later, particularly in 2008, when I asked people to whom I’d given x-stitches or weavings to respond in some way (see several responses here). I only had images of “X(exoxial)-stitch” and the piece for Rita Raley so I sent those. Imagine my surprise when they were accepted. Imagine my surprise when they have continued to be accepted into shows, visual poetry blogs, poetry journals, etc. I applied for a few residencies with text/textile projects and am amazed that the doors seem to be opening: the Electronic Book Review had “Electronic Text + Textile” residencies in Latvia and Switzerland, so I was in Riga in August 2008, and two weeks in Basel in June 2009. I had a residency at the UMN’s Institute for Advanced Study (spring 2008) in which I brought my loom to my office for the semester, and then a two-week group residency at the Banff Center for the Arts, in February 2011.
I forgot to mention above that my weaving practice began in 1969. The summer of Woodstock I was a sulky fourteen-year-old and my mother signed me up for a few crafts classes at the Falmouth Arts and Crafts Center. The pottery didn’t take but the weaving did. My teacher was Fran Dandridge, a one-armed woman who would rest the cones of warp-yarn on her elbow-stump while she demonstrated how to string the yarn on a warping board. My mother told me many years later that I said of her in wonderment: “She uses bad English and doesn’t know it.” My parents bought me the loom I still have, a Nilus-Leclerc four-harness, thirty-six-inch floor-loom, the following October, and over the next few years I paid them back.
At first I thought I would be writing reflective and theoretically-tinged essays on the text/textile nexus, but these, while not nonexistent, have taken a decided backseat to the practice. Cross-stitching is a good practice at conferences, meetings and social occasions; it is soothing and helps me process the excitement that’s stirred up by hearing a good paper or poetry reading; or, on the other hand, if the meeting is boring, it helps address the frustration that I’m wasting my time nonproductively. Weaving, as the floor-loom is non-portable, is a more homebound activity.
I kept a blog for about six months, encouraged by the leaders (Fred Wah, Lance Olsen, and J. R. Carpenter) of a Banff Center for the Arts residency in 2011, “In(ter)ventions: Literary Practice at the Edge,” in which I explored etymologies, scavenging, text/ile musings, etc.
Currently, I’m executing two projects: first, as a fan of Iggy (Pop) and the Stooges, I’m weaving scarves for the band and members of the entourage, and x-stitching Stoogey words appropriate to the person. For James Williamson, the guitarist, I made the scarf out of white silk and “wrote” in red cotton the words “Raw Power” and “Kill City,” as those were the albums on which he appeared, and for which he wrote the music, in the 1970s. This scarf was featured in the Text Festival at Bury, England, in the summer of 2011, much to my delight and amazement. It was actually the reverse side of the stitching that Tony Trehy, the curator, liked; he happened to see it on Facebook and contacted me. The other scarves have been black cotton (more rock’n’roll in color). For Scott Asheton, I “wrote” “Rock Action,” which is his nom de rock; and so forth.
The second current project is much more modest: some months ago there was a brief Facebook meme, in which I participated, in which people vowed to make handmade items for the first five respondents. So I’m making small things for Susana Gardner, founder of the Dusie Kollektiv, Katie Price, a doctoral student at UPenn, and a few others.
Maria Damon, “Open Up and Bleed: For James Osterberg, Jr.” Damon: “‘Open Up and Bleed’ is for Iggy Pop (James N. Osterberg Jr.). Iggy has a serious self-sabotaging streak but also a strong libidinized spirituality. There’s blood pouring down his chest and silver ejaculate radiating upwards. The word is ‘Obsess.’ You can’t really see it but some of the letters are edged in silver and of course I left the needle in the center to give him a choice.”
Rachel answers the same question: How and when and why did you begin doing them [i.e. visual art items]; what was at stake in this decision (also what relation does this have to your “other” work-in-the-world — teaching; writing)? When did you “begin to decide” to do embroidered texts (MD) collage (RBD) — how did you instantiate this decision to begin?
Rachel Blau DuPlessis: First part: the long saga of beginning.
I decided to do this collage practice, you might say, over forty years. This is so comic that I can barely bring myself to say it. But when you look at the dates, it is true. Only now have I “instantiated” — that is, really continued — doing works I had clearly been interested in doing since — OK — let’s say it: 1964.
In 1964–69, I made several talismanic collages — still have them. Here’s a list:
— RAGE. (With Paris-Nord to London Victoria ticket material on it, and a ripped beer label — Courage and Barclay.) Summer 1964. One of the first if not the first made.
— Poems, Wallace Stevens cover/orange soda label. Might be the second made, 1964.
— Impasto of tickets, now mainly faded. Actually dated, signed Blau, 1964. That helps me date these.
— On wood, with wheel of thread. Very early, 1966?–1970.
I was involved at that point in an Upper West Side artistic group, The Eventorium, folks mainly from Columbia University and its approximate literary surround (but not the poet-undergraduates who would have been influenced by Kenneth Koch). These folks were often quite immersed in French materials. The group had a very surrealist orientation; we did surrealist plays and poets theater; we translated from the French, and so on. For example, Michael Benedikt was a regular, along with Serge Gavronsky and Michael O’Brien.
The “leader” was Frank Kuenstler. He was a denizen of the underground film world, a poet, and a collagist. Kuenstler was the initial inspiration for my making collage (but not for my seeing it and looking at it — that was earlier). He also was in some undefined sense half-connected to the (contemporaneous) New York School, downtown. And to other movements at that point — there was a bit of Fluxus in him. For instance, he now reminds me of a straight Ray Johnson (another contemporaneous collagist), and so I got that “feel” or “touch” quite indirectly. Frank was a bricoleur, a marginal person, and a creative one. (Incidentally, his selected poetry, The Enormous Chorus, is available from Pressed Wafer Press  and there was a revival reading in NYC in which I participated.) I don’t know whether his collages survive; I liked them very much then — they were filled with street gleanings — wood, furniture bits, paper — the lot. Frank has a daughter, Emily Kuenstler, who is the executor of his estate.
This group had a magazine called The Eventorium Muse, but generally did not “go downtown” (i.e. to St. Mark’s, but to other sites as well, like Judson Church). At least many of its denizens did not. I did not — first, because I was a girl grad student during that time, and busy. But also I did not because of the really strong dangers for juicy young females at that time (to be wasted, used up, destroyed), me being very self-protective. Mainly I think I was wary/frightened because I did NOT have the adequate defenses against being used up nor the interest in risk elements of some of my actual age-mates. This (my not going downtown) is pertinent to my poetry, but it is also pertinent to collage. Collage now might be a way of reconnecting with that past and reclaiming it. Collage is certainly a promissory note — a debt to myself that I felt I had to pay. Or to redeem.
I know now that Notley was making collage during that approximate time. Barbara Guest, too. Collage was certainly a key medium for Joe Brainard, and now we know, for John Ashbery, too — at that era, it was very New York School and very art-world oriented. One of its modes, of course, is surrealist combinatoire, often witty, comic and knowing. My early poetry was more surrealist than what happened when I entered the objectivist zone after meeting George Oppen in 1965. But I’d say that the collage impulse shifted in and for my poetry from being image-based and lexicon-oriented to being structurally based, about the suggestive and semantic conjunctions of blocks of material. That is, collage became a vital and central poetics for my current poetry, but more on the level of structure than in the realm of individual image juxtapositions. More on that in a minute.
Later (way later, in Swarthmore, PA, up there on the third-floor in my study) I made one turning point work for my poetry around the time of beginning Drafts, 1986. Typically, I did not date it, but it may well have been 1985 or 1986. It can be dated because I still had and could use a typewriter. This is a one-off in which I took a brand name label, a Tree-Top apple juice label, to be precise. I rolled it into the typewriter and intuitively typed two pieces of advice. “Apprentice yourself to yourself” and “Dry up your minimalism.” I still have this artifact. It is incredibly important advice, although I thought it was nonsense then. (This moment and message also appear in the later “Draft 56: Bildungsgedicht with Apple.”) I took “Dry up your minimalism” to mean that objectivist purity, the modernist purifications and my pre-feminist blockage and lack of fluidity were doing me in. I had a major perfection hang-up and the pure-word minimalism (of my first, long-belated book, Wells ) was a way of expressing — without curing — the desire for a perfection that I would never reach. (This Montemora Editions book was posted on Duration Press Online Out of Print Book Archives, in 1999.) Since Wells came from that purity, plus a resistance to beauty, it’s a wonder there was any book at all. Writing poetry almost didn’t happen; this was my condition for many years.
“Apprentice yourself to yourself” meant that I had done enough with the poetic tradition. I knew it well enough, but too vaguely — to be self-sardonic for a second. Let’s at least say I was not innocent. I just hadn’t used ”the poetic tradition” for me. I was too awed by it, and insufficiently narcissistic, grasping, egotistical, ruthless; this is, of course, a completely comic remark, being rather narcissistic and egotistical. I could, however, learn a bit from myself because I knew poetry well enough; thus I could (safely) apprentice myself to that self and not be excessively deceived. What followed from that acknowledgement were some key questions for making art — IF THIS, then what? And what was I going to do about it? What did I come here to tell you that only I could? So finally, I had better start; it was almost too late. It was in fact already too late. So I stopped worrying about how to begin, and simply began. That is, I begin Drafts.
Clearly that visual event was like a divining rod. But it did not lead directly to more visual artworks.
The third “episode” in this saga of beginning. In April 2002, you could say, I was beginning (ahem — slowly …) to decide to make collage. I got one of those attractive blank bound books — regular journal size, bound in red. I began pasting into this book — making a few collages. I called this my Fed Up Collage Book — fed up with not doing this yet. It was an indication that I wanted to do collage. Again, to understand my not doing this or doing it much, you just have to understand that I was busy Mom-ing, teaching, writing poetry and prose, editing things (working on journals) … Busy busy busy. That is, speaking in this way to you, Maria, about our visual arts works, focusing only on that, it makes it seem as if I should have been doing this (in my spare time — yeah, right …) all along. But we understand why not.
So this was an unfinished red notebook/sketchbook with writing and collages made on the page, some now razored out for scanning [see Six Vispo works, Drunken Boat 10 (July 2009)]. In many ways, the book mode (the codex) was inhibiting, while I had thought it would be a good idea. It is hard to make free art works in a bound setting. I do like “WHAT … loss of aura” (Sept. 2002), also “I Miss Liberty” (17 Feb. 2005; post-Bush). Both of these are one decontextualized piece of paper, often with a statement that “de-turns” them. That is, they are not quite full collage, but rather an artifact with a comment. Curiously (probably from the diary motif — these were made in a book looking like a diary) these are all assiduously dated (but not signed). One of these days, maybe I will. It is interesting to think of the inhibition around “signature” — or perhaps, it’s simply unnecessary to say “RBD.” I know who made them, after all.
In 2006 or so I began making these artworks again. It is hard to know why/how/what was/were the triggers, after this long history of not starting. One really wonders. I can think of two reasons and then some. First, I knew about the career of collage maker Anne Ryan. She did much work of high interest, often with fabric. I knew she had begun doing collage in her later years. I sort of remember — in her 60s but maybe her 50s. I thought I would do this too, and I was getting to that point — or past it. Second, I have a friend, who is an art historian and independent curator and lives a life filled with art — artifacts all over, a beautiful house. She told me she wanted to do collage, and had collected many items, papers, etc. for this, but she could not begin. I thought, well, Fuck Me. Time to begin. I know this sounds amazing but it is true. The vulgar, face-it statement is a way of saying: What was I waiting for?
I can’t fully track the relationship of this realization to what became The Collage Poems of Drafts, because as always my sense of my own chronology is really blurry. I would have to see whether I said anything in a journal. But of course I had always known about Mail Art as a “movement” and had found it fascinating. (See, by the way the Musée de la Poste in Paris that includes a room on one mail-art exchange.) So I know I wanted to do an homage, or something tapping through to Ray Johnson. R. J. was a collagist. A mail-art denizen [inventor, some say]. and my absolute anti-type. Wanting to do “Mail Art” was part of my application to Bellagio where (stroke of intense luck), I went in early 2007. I did in fact make most of “Draft 94: Mail Art” there in 2007. It was always intended for Drafts; it was not mailed. I also wrote first versions of “Draft 85: Hard Copy” (the “Oppen poem”) there. It was a pretty fruitful month. I’d observe that Drafts was the maternal “cover” for this little seed of collage finally to germinate.
Similarly, I am not sure how I got the idea thereupon to make “Draft CX: Primer” — it just seemed totally and immediately logical. There is a lot of alphabet material in Drafts as a whole, and this poem simply ratcheted that up by doing a whole alphabet as a primer. Both works were “given” by their titles — this is often how I conceptualize the work in Drafts. So that work was done, as you can see by the dates on the twenty-six letters and a coda, in 2009. In summer 2009, in Italy, I made the collages, and then when I brought them home, I knew I would put bits of writing on them, mainly in November 2009. This was an amazing extended creation over a number of months (and two continents).
I knew, when Pitch: Drafts 77–95 was published, that it would be impossible for “Mail Art” to appear in color, so a smaller selection of the black and white collages, or ones that would reproduce was made for that book. That put a premium on arranging for The Collage Poems of Drafts to be published in color. This happened, happily, in 2011, also by Salt Publishing and with the help of the Pew Foundation. One of the interesting aspects of The Collage Poems of Drafts is that the two poems in it appear in two different “books” of Drafts — that is, the visual texts bridge across the boundary of the codex, which, in all of the books of Drafts, is based on the number nineteen, or a multiple.
I have always tried to choose the covers for my books of both criticism and poetry (and have succeeded in doing so for most of them, even with university and trade press publication). For the past couple of books of poetry, I have also made the covers — collages for both Pitch and for The Collage Poems. I also made the collage cover for one of the early (pre-Wesleyan) publications of Drafts (Drafts 3–14, from Potes & Poets Press 1991). Plus I took the photograph for Drafts 15–XXX, The Fold (from Potes & Poets Press 1997), and made handwriting covers for both Renga: Draft 32 (BeautifulSwimmer Press, 1998) and Draft, unnumbered: Précis (Nomados, 2003).
Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “Green Shadow.” 5 x 7 inches, 2010.
Making collage poems is something that I could see happening more, now and in the future, and so I have done some recent works — none in a big series, but just individual works. I’ve also made collages without words. I have become interested in image-text relations as you clearly are, too — one thing that has led to our talking to each other like this. But “image-text relations” are hard to figure it out — to “theorize”? — particularly without an ethos of the illustrative, an ethos, I (naturally) resist. As for “theorizing” — I am more inductive, on-the-ground, pragmatic and into praxis — how does this one item work, not how does one conceptualize this “as a whole” (for I am not sure it can be).
I do this artwork throughout the year, sometimes intently, sometimes in a desultory fashion. I do this in Philly (I have a little workspace for it in the guest room) and in Italy during the summer. The issue over these years has rapidly become how to feel my way to an even more serious practice. How to know whether I like individual works and what “like” means. How can I make the works better? And what “better” means in the context of a very loose and “let’s fool around” feeling to the practice.
Francie Shaw and Susan Bee recently talked to me about glue — basically both simultaneously told me to stop using Dollar Store glue sticks. So I have two kinds of better glue, some brushes for it, a board to try to “center things” (ha) — a ruler board, and some commitment to better paper as the matrix.
Question 2) What sources and analogues for this work do you have, if any? Do you look at or seek out (exhibits of) such work or related work?
Damon: I see what I’m doing as folk art, and also a somewhat bourgeois lady-work. We could call it semi-skilled. Anybody can do this, like breathing, or like playing in a punk band. So although I’m full of admiration for other poets who work in textiles, like Jen Bervin or Cecilia Vicuña, and who are trained in the visual arts, I feel my own work to be close to the ground rather than fitting into a fine arts category. By keeping the pieces small and personal I can stay close to the moment and respond to an impulse before it wanes. I did go to Pricked: Extreme Embroidery at the Museum of Art and Design in NYC a few years ago, and was duly impressed, but only a few of the artists executed their own designs. I only related deeply to the work of an Italian artist, “The Death of the Blind Philosopher.” I was much more generally moved, for example, by the Gee’s Bend Quilt exhibit several years earlier. Since then my range has expanded, though, and I would probably enjoy the fine art work a bit more. I am crazy about the yarnbombing movement — it is furtive, nocturnal, illicit and vibrantly colorful — and am trying to do something like this with one of my poetry classes. I adore Cecilia Vicuña’s work and especially the way she integrates verbal and textilic elements both thematically and structurally in her works, and the social content of her projects.
Last year I went to the Textile Museum in St. Gallen, where there was a wonderful lace exhibit, and this year I saw the Madagascar-based spider-spun silk at the Victoria and Albert Museum (amazing!), as well as the Musée d’Impression sur Etoffe (printed textile) in Mulhouse. I find these visual experiences enthralling, but I can’t really say that they enter my own work (except perhaps obliquely), which remains primitive and based in the person-to-person.
What you say below: “Because I am an untrained artist, I identify with the outsider ethos. Yet I couldn’t be more different in social location,” is an apt summary of one way I locate myself. As you know, much of my scholarly work investigates outsider writing, and there’s clearly a reason for this, however deeply buried and refracted it may be through educational, social and economic privilege, etc. I recently saw a wonderful Adolf Wölfli exhibit in Prague: just so moving and profound, beautiful. And from the magnificent Christine Wertheim (co-originator of the crochet coral reef project, among other things), I learned about about a French outsider writer named Jean-Pierre Brisset (1837–1919), who believed that humans evolved from frogs, because the sound frogs make is close to the syllables that express metaphysical wonder among (French-speaking) humans. Henry Darger is another hero. Opal Whitely and the French child-poet Minou Drouet — although none of my work, in any genre, is anything like theirs.
2) What sources and analogues for this work do you have, if any? Do you look at or seek out (exhibits of) such work or related work?
DuPlessis: I feel influenced by a) Anne Ryan b) John Heartfeld c) Hannah Höch d) Jess [Collins] e) Ray Johnson f) Kurt Schwitters g) Romare Bearden h) Theodore Harris (an African American Philly artist — we have traded studio visits) i) John Evans j) Bettye Saar k) Sheila Hicks [a textile artist with a collage sensibility in my view — at least in some of her pieces] l) Richard Tuttle m) Martha Rosler n) Joseph Cornell o) Joe Brainard. No particular order to that list, but Schwitters is prime.
I can’t even begin to tell you how much Schwitters and small constructivist work — Hans and Sophie Arp — (and maybe even Paul Klee in his “watercolor/collage modes) has been important. And I mean ever since I was a “little girl.” Thank goodness for MoMA — which was in my hometown. (That is probably why, when I picked recent covers for the “feminist trilogy” Pink Guitar, Blue Studios, Purple Passages, all were work from the constructivist/cubist teens of the twentieth century — Juan Gris and Francis Picabia.)
I have always liked small scale, focused, witty, elegant, and “to die for” work like that. I swear, whenever I am in any museum, my fantasy “one artwork to steal” is almost always a Schwitters. I am also interested in the social commentary that can be made by some collage (e.g. Heartfield, Höch, Saar). Bearden is just a bit too representational for me — and yet — he is very important and I like to look at that work too.
I also am fascinated by any work that has writing in it — Colin McCahan — a New Zealand contemporary/modernist is one such, whom I saw on my recent two-month jaunt and residency at the University of Auckland.
Curiously I don’t really like Max Ernst and that mode of collage. It seems hokey and dated.
I do seek out this collage-based work a lot — for example I am on the mailing list of Pavel Zoubok gallery in NYC which is a pretty-much 90 percent collage gallery — and a terrific educational site for me. Francie Shaw and I took a day to drive up to the Schwitters show that came to Princeton last spring (2011). I will linger over collage work/that kind of work (boxes, constructivist collage-assemblages) in museums.
I also have a folk art/outsider artist aesthetic. A lot of the work I admire in that regard is assemblage — like The Philadelphia Wireman. (I have a poem to him — “Draft 22: Philadelphia Wireman” — and also use the work on the cover of the 2004 Drafts called, in my shorthand, Pledge/Preçis, that is, Drafts 39–57, Pledge, with Draft unnumbered: Précis.) That is small scale work — I am also inordinately fond of a lot of outsider art that takes shape as site-specific sculptures, yard decorations, weird “temples” like those made by Simon Rodia and Le Facteur Cheval and James Hampton. (I have this in common with long-poem writer Ronald Johnson.) I have visited those sites/installations at various times over the years. And visited others, too. A crazy “park” in France where the person made a whole metal mini-town complete with a train running overhead. Vollis Simpson in North Carolina — metal sculptures looking like some cockamamie ferris wheel, state fair rides — fantastic — and BIG. That kind of thing. Two days ago (April 2012) in North Philly, I grokked a crazy car that had been decorated in an outsider art manner — yum! cruising along — also broadcasting music from two speakers on the roof (!!!). Incidentally, here responding to your note, I was totally turned on by the quilts of Gee’s Bend, an exhibit I saw, appropriately, when I attended the Lorine Niedecker conference in Milwaukee. And the textile museum in Mulhouse, too! Bob and I visited this recently; indeed, the little free swatch of printed textile that they give you as a ticket went into the collage called “Quilt” up at Alligatorzine.
Reusing, recycling, refashioning, repurposing, de-turning — all these are central to my aesthetic and ethical perspective.
Because I am an untrained artist, I identify with the outsider ethos. Yet I couldn’t be more different in social location. However, I think the impulse to make, to do, to accomplish poesis is widespread among the population — that many people are creative — this is my Deweyan ethos.
Question 3) Did you have a “poetics” or an “aesthetics” for your artworks beforehand? (That is before you began to do this artwork in earnest.) Do you have one now? Does it matter? Or is there a better question for getting at what satisfies you in a work?
Damon: I’m not sure I can spell out a “poetics” for myself, and that word is in fact not one that I’ve considered in relation to my textile work. In terms of textile work’s appeal for me and my orientation toward it, then:
Weaving is a way for me to immerse myself in color and pattern, and it is materials-based: I revel in making the pieces as chaotic as possible, threading the loom with several different patterns and mixing textures freely: metallic next to thick nubby wool, shiny embroidery floss up against cotton bouclé, etc. When I was a teenager my mother would complain about my use of ribbon among otherwise natural fibers: “It cheapens it,” she would say disdainfully. I would unravel all the half-made socks or discarded sweaters with worn-out elbows in the house and incorporate the yarn into my shawls. So the scavenging element, now known as upcycling, used to be a strong presence in my work. Now that I can afford to buy yarn, and now that I’ve long since used up all the scraps of wool in my mother’s house, I avail myself of new materials. Also, having realized that I have more yarn than I can use up in a lifetime, I have stopped begging friends and family for scraps from their project leftovers.
Maria Damon, detail from “Psychedellic White: Bollywood Ringtone Suicide.” Damon: “This is part of a wall-hanging I made for the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Minnesota, where I was a resident in spring 2008. I moved my loom into my institute office and titled the piece after the other residents’ projects: Arun Saldanha hada published a book called Psychedelic White;
Jigna Desai was working on global Bollywood (Hmong kids doing Bollywood-based dance numbers in St. Paul basements), Sumanth Gopinath on the ringtone industry (which went obsolete as he worked on his book), and Hoon Song on Korean internet teen suicide clubs.
In my teens I was particularly drawn to warm browns, grays and whites — they struck me as invitingly soft analogues to the wintry New England landscapes that surrounded me. Now, living in Minnesota where the landscape is even more barren and monochromatic and the winters twice as long, I find I crave color.
X-stitching was somewhat by-the-book, color-by-number until recently, when improvisation has come increasingly into play. In “Spore-form,” for instance, I started the piece with the enormous “O” of “Form” and realized I’d never have room for the others letters if I used the same “font,” so I improvised the F, which ended up looking a bit like a T-Rex dinosaur attacking the “O.”
As I’ve said, my aesthetic is crude and folk-based; for weaving I use the Appalachian-based A Handweaver’s Pattern Book, by Marguerite P. Davidson. This book was doctrinal for weavers during the 1970s crafts revival and has remained so for me.
Repeating Question 3) did you have a “poetics” or an “aesthetics” beforehand? (That is before you began to do this in earnest.) Do you have one now? Does it matter? Or is there a better question for getting at what satisfies you in a work?
DuPlessis: So what is it about these works — the ones I mentioned, above, and my desire to do this work, too. I am really answering this question as if it were “What is your aesthetics of collage?” Also everything I said above modulates into the question of poetics or aesthetics. I have never really sat down to formulate this, so here goes, as a first try.
1) The impasto of paper. Paper, paper, paper — what a turn-on! (sometimes with pens). And sometimes other materials. The materiality of the materials. The smell of fresh paper. The rupture of first use, first association into a remade, “repurposed” use. Also I love color and texture.
2) The recycling element. This is where the Benjamin citation I will often quote comes in. You know the one I mean: “Method of this project: literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse — these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them” (Benjamin, Arcades Project 1999, 460). I want the debris, the refuse — I want to point to it, via collage. (The word debris comes from another translation of the same passage.) Collage is a deictic practice of debris.
This involves the transposition of junk. The picking up of packaging, ripping it randomly. An a-consumerist détournement. A turning things, you know, inside out. The familiar kind of paper that suddenly you see in a new light. Re-contextualizing the “scavenged.”
3) Social frisson; the social play of the edge. I am interested not so much in isolating the original sources, purposes, or referents of the materials and nullifying these as in sometimes evoking that source, meaning and using it. Part of the clash of collage is this, I believe. And also some of the wit of collage. (The social references of this conjuncture, the projection of an ideological play of the edge.) In contrast, Schwitters himself said (according to that show I mentioned) that he wanted to nullify the Eigengift, the inner poison of the original reference — like its existence as a bus ticket or something: “the original function of the materials as well as their thematic and historical particularities” (this from the signage at the Princeton Museum show in May 2011). But I disagree. And I think he is not totally fair about what his actual impact is — that is, his stated poetics and the effect of the work somewhat contradict each other.
4) And of course the visual play of edge. The utterly surprising effects one might get from putting one color/shape next to another color/shape. The way to inhabit the little space. The size of the smaller and the larger Dollar Store frames. I also sometimes like to use threat and fabric scraps. [SIC!!! I meant thread] I don’t have too many of the latter, alas. (Note — having said this, a few weeks later, I actually scored some at a textile store in Umbertide — glad to have said it — told me what I needed.)
I am not great at all of this — I don’t manage plumb lines well, I get askew. Off-center, off-plumb line, inexact. As someone said — a few degrees to the left … A little messay. [another SIC] Sometimes planned things fall off by chance from where I wanted them. So that becomes part of the play. You “see the glue” — you see the edge (especially in how I present things — by scanner). I decided that this is OK — that IS the ethos/poetics of my work.
5) Relationship to my poems. Viewed from the perspective of collage (especially Schwitters) — Drafts are a “Merzblau.” It just seemed perfectly logical to begin to do collage poems, or to incorporate text into collage, or to play between these media.
6) Schwitters finally said or thought that he was doing a Gesamtkunstwerk, combining all branches of art [except sound!] into an artistic unit and effacing the boundaries among the arts. I admire that he did this on such a small (i.e. non-bombastic) scale. There is some of this aesthetics in Drafts. Long poems often have a totalizing (without totality) or encyclopedic propulsion. An “everything poem.”
Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “jeu.” 5 x 7 inches, 2011.
Question 4) What’s the relationship between your textual work and your hand/art/visual work? Did one grow out of the other? Are they parallel but not overlapping? How/where to they touch, what are their contiguities — or is one a break from the other?
DuPlessis: This is of course somehow the $64 million question, and it is correspondingly difficult to answer. I think that there is a special sense in both my poetry and my artwork that collage is central to both of them, as a root mode of practice. In terms of poetry, serial sequencing by collage-style juxtaposition is a very normal part of it. That is, individual segments are most often built using syntax (and argument — hypotactically), but the way segments join is at root by collage (paratactically). And yet the collage juxtapositions also create an argument as well as a mood, an emotional arc, a trajectory. That is, most often the “collage” of juxtaposing blocks of closely-knit text makes a new “experience” — one most often not tracking something that actually happened. (The writing up of a poem from an experience [one single “moment” or its spun-out elaboration] — this mode I long-ago rejected.) My works create a new (often odic, extended, meditative) experience on the page. This is somewhat projective, but it is also built by evaluation and changes. First thought is not hardly best thought where my writing is concerned. I make lots of revisions to and versions of a poem before it settles down.
Collage and my poetry were simultaneous impulses back then in the 1960s (that is, they “grew together,” to cite you), but I could not do everything, and so, as I said above, I simply put the impulse actually to make collage on a kind of back burner (I was going to say “on ice” — disparate freeze and burn metaphors) for many years, until, as best I can tell, 2002.
But collage is absolutely a root mode of my textual work in poetry: The poetry works by the juxtaposition of various materials to make a new “whole” — a new art object. I put “whole” in quotation marks because the relation of segment to completion, part to whole, element to overarching structure is one of the fundamental things in play in Drafts. Basically with an essay such as “For the Etruscans” and some others as well (the Duchamp essay in Pink Guitar; the essay called “Manifests” in Blue Studios), I have the sense that some argument-leaping and quick shifts of attention come into the essays, too, from collage. (Or, to use the term more proper to a set of juxtapositions unrolling in time — from montage.)
At the same time two other things are true: actually making collage down there on the piece of paper with other pieces of paper and glue is a new, pleasurable and amusing use of the powers of choice, observation and decision that one also uses in making any artwork. It is like a deck-clearing move from all the poetry to get back to ground again: choice, evaluation, decision, observation — repeated as best one can. It has a fun feeling. Put that red next to that black! In this sense, visual art is a bit of a break (citing your word above). That’s because the stakes are more in play than in a career as partially “made.”
Further, sometimes I want to combine little bits of text (aphorism, mystery, enigmatic lines) with collage as a visual-textual object. So I want the two arts to intertwine and inflect each other — this being a specific kind of challenge that I am also committed to.
Did I mention that making something is passionate activity?
Again question 4) What's the relationship between your textual work and your hand/art/visual work? Did one grow out of the other? Are they parallel but not overlapping? How/where to they touch, what are their contiguities — or is one a break from the other?
Damon: Your eloquence in response to the previous question: the “social frisson,” the aesthetics of the “edge,” appeals to me deeply. I’m not sure my x-stitch practice plays at the edge in the way that I could argue that my scholarship does. Perhaps the relationship is simply one of complementarity? But that’s too facile and dismissive. What I see as the “thru-line” (thread, af”fil”iation, etc.) is a preoccupation with relationality. Although it’s experienced as solitary, writing is essentially a social practice. And as I’ve said, my handwork has no meaning except insofar as it participates in either gift or on-the-ground exchange (barter) economy. Very person-to-person, very immediate and direct. I think of Nicole Peyrafitte’s integration of cooking with performance; she gives to the audience in substantive and sustaining ways that highlight her talents, to be sure, but does so thru media and materials that can’t be disentangled from their relational web. My poetry is almost entirely collaborative at this point, and my scholarship, though still produced on a single-author basis, concerns the ways in which interior lives and expressive cultures are woven through and mutually constitutive of social locations. Even the most eccentric writers whose loneliness forms the core of their writerly identity — especially these writers, in fact (Bob Kaufman, John Wieners, etc.) — appeal to me as subject matter for scholarship because their experiences of solitude and the community networks in which they were embedded are so closely related. In fact, perhaps this is tautological, because loneliness itself was a social (and sociological) trope of great power in the 1950s and early 1960s when both Kaufman and Wieners formed their identities as poets.
Maria Damon, “EM: For Emma Bernstein and Family.” Damon: “I used phrases from Charles and Felix Bernstein’s talks at Emma’s memorial service. Felix told me that he got ‘The beautiful room is not empty’ from Kafka.”
Question 5) How/when do other people enter the picture: do you consult with others before, during, after a piece? Is it a solo semi-secret enterprise or is it, like x-stitching a sociable pursuit?
DuPlessis: I don’t really consult, but I will show my work once it is finished. Sometimes I show Bob [DuPlessis] after I make a collage, and he has his likes or dislikes which do or don’t connect with mine. I don’t get destabilized by his opinion (though he does have a good eye), as it’s just one register of an impact. Sometimes another person is very struck by a piece that I like but wasn’t wowed by. I have shown the work, so to speak, privately, and people get very surprised or interested or fascinated: people who have seen work in the house include Susan Bee, Susan Howe, Francie Shaw (who gave me a crit last year about not gunking things up too much — giving things more space), Chris Martin, Julia Dreshler, Amy Sadeo, Tom Devaney, Jena Osman, Amze Emmons, Jennifer Scappattone, Kathleen Fraser. In Italy, the sculptor Liliane Lijn. The folks on this list who are “real” (professionally recognized) visual artists are kind of “yeah, not bad …” so far as I can tell. Some work has appeared online, and of course some has appeared in the book as The Collage Poems of Drafts. So it is not semi-secret, but it is definitely solo.
As with my poetry, I never consult with anyone when the work is in process, except — interestingly — with a few recent poems at the “end” of the project called Drafts, as it turns into whatever else it will now be. I’d say that over years of art making and decades of poetry making, flying solo is definitely my way. The exceptions are miniscule — one in a hundred.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “[Red].” 7 X 10 inches, 2012.
Damon (answer to 5): I consult often, as often as I can but not as often as I wish (I don’t want to overburden my friends with demands). I have certain go-to people for certain writing endeavors: Mark Nowak, when he lived in the Twin Cities, was a constant and faithful giver of feedback on my scholarly work. For x-stitches I will often ask mIEKAL to give me some ideas. He was especially helpful with “Cobza, Maya, Yayli Tanbur” (suggesting the black frame) and “EM.” I’ve learned from students that my color palette is outmoded (“jewel colors are so 1980s”) so I consult with younger colleagues who have good and sure taste, or students whose style of dressing I admire, how to put together a color scheme for a weaving. And of course, for baby blankets (and formerly for tallitot, prayer shawls in the Jewish tradition), I ask the parents (and the bar/bat mitzvahs) what colors they like. Consultation is yet another form of sociability. At the same time, I don’t like to be told what to do — who does? So I ask questions and entertain suggestions and more often than not adopt them.
Question 6) What do you DO with the work? Where is it kept? Do you give it away? Keep it? What is any “bibliography” of its circulation? What would be some ideal ways of circulating it, if you wanted to do more? Do you document the items in any way?
Damon: I’ve only kept one of the pieces, because I don’t know whom to give it to. It’s the “Text, Textile, Exile piece in Meshwards (“my Bible story”). Generally they’re made with someone in mind and then given to that person. In addition to the vispo x-stitches, there are woven pieces that are less verbal; these have functioned as gifts for far longer than the cross-stitches, and perhaps because there’s a narrative process (a beginning, a middle and an end) to weaving on a loom and the patterns and processes are highly rhythmic, until recently they have seemed more like poems than the x-stitches. Perhaps that’s because for decades I followed patterns created by others for the x-stitches, whereas the weaving was more expressive until I also started designing my own x-stitches.
I should really compile a “giftography” of these pieces. On my residency in Riga, I asked people I’d given pieces to over the years to respond; Chris Funkhouser published a nice piece in Jacket about my weaving gifts for his family, and others sent beautiful poems, mini-essays, and the like. My intention was to compile this material and I published quite a bit of it on my blog and in a piece in EBR. Renato Rosaldo, my ethnography teacher at Stanford, wrote a sweet poem that I haven’t done anything with yet. Maybe I’ll take the opportunity of this dialogue (or parallel monologues) to construct such an -ography.
Again question 6) What do you DO with the work? Where is it kept? Do you give it away? Keep it? What is any “bibliography” of its circulation? What would be some ideal ways of circulating it, if you wanted to do more? Do you document the items in any way?
DuPlessis: Well — to understand this practice, I first had to recognize that I was doing it — and, as I said, that took time. Now I try to do the following things:
Record the collages I have done on a list that I update.
Date, title and sign them, too (mostly).
Some are hung in our house, as you saw. Some on the second floor, too, that you didn’t see. So I can see them, even some really bad ones.
I don’t give work away. In fact, this is hard to contemplate. I’ve given some privately to Bob as valentines — indeed, doing a few valentines was another path into this practice. This is very lady-gift-exchange of me.
I have a set of files (actual pieces) — of “Mail Art,” of “Primer,” of the collage work that I was doing in January 2012 (some are up on Alligatorzine). I also try to scan them so I have a virtual file of good ones or ones that interest me. This is a very uneven practice — all the “good” ones have not been scanned. I don’t (yet??) own a scanner — so I go back to Temple University to do this work at the Instructional Support Center — individual people there are thanked for their help. When I was at the National Humanities Center, Phillip Barron helped me a lot with scanning and photo-shopping for the Jacket publication of “Draft 94: Mail Art.”
People have made vague, imprecise noises about my showing the work. I think that it would be enormous fun to have a show. Am I ready? Almost. Sometimes. Maybe not. I think I’d have to accept the sale of work (if it occurred). I’d also (more fundamentally) have to feel seriously competent — that this is worth showing in an official kind of venue. It takes more than ten years to learn to do an artwork that might capture the attention of other people and not be self-indulgent in a public forum. I have never wanted to go into the world bearing half-assed work that had my name on it. (This is why my visible career, even in poetry, is so belated.)
Here is a dream I had in 2011, in November. (I suspect real artists dream like this all the time.) I dreamt of hanging my collages in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, secretly, just before a Duchamp show. The affect of the dream was very positive. My works were present to my dream eye, but none of the ones I have already done, none recognizable, and none remembered in waking life. The curators, all very obscure, began ripping them down, but then recognized them as art, as an art product. Still they came down. The dream ended with them looking for me to give my works back to me.
Or, frankly, it may be counter-intuitive (or delusional) for me to think of the normal art world methods for visibility. Perhaps continuing to show the work on the web and in books — something I have already started doing — is more idiomatic for me and for the project.
Question 7) Where do you get the materials and how do the materials turn you on? What are the dialogues between the materials and the artifact?
Damon: Oh, the materials, the materials! Yummy! I’m like Nate Mackey in a record store when I enter a yarn store. Although, as I’ve said, I have more yarn than I can use up in one lifetime, I can’t walk out empty-handed. The colors, the textures, the look and the feel; above all, the tactility. The history and human labor of culling, gathering, shearing and spinning, of developing dye-stuffs from plants and animals (wode, beets, onion skins, Murex snail shells for Tyrian purple, insects for cochineal/carmine, etc.) all embedded in every skein. Yarn stores are ubiquitous and thriving, thanks to the knitting resurgence of the last ten years. For the embroidery, I’m fortunate to live near a Scandinavian import store, Ingebretsen’s, which fetishizes Minnesota’s Scandinavian settler heritage. The thread I use almost exclusively, Danish flower thread, which is the material of the Håndarbejdet’s Fremme, is a matte cotton thread that comes in many shades of glory. The skeins are twisted-up, curly little things that, in their jumbled togetherness, emulate the brain’s folds and complexities. Although in the store they’re in neat color-coded rows in their divided drawers, in my sewing bag they are a riotous jumble of thrown-together all-thereness. I often prefer the look of the unused materials, sumptuous and vibrating with potential, to what they become as objects. My loom room is festooned with skeins of unevenly spun, highly textured yarn, and I sometimes wear a skein of yarn, esp. silk, as a necklace for certain festive events. I’ve also been increasing my use of metallic thread, gold or silver, for outlining letters to enhance either the flashiness of the piece (such as “Open Up and Bleed,” the one for Iggy Pop) or the illuminated-letter effect (for “Exile” or “EM”) that ties the practice to that of making sacred cloth (Torah covers, altar-cloths or priestly vestments) as well as manuscripts of sacred texts. The word “encrusted” has a powerful vibration, and although my use of metallic thread is relatively modest, I like the understated relationship it indicates to heavily ornamented, sumptuous liturgical textiles that one could accurately describe as “jewel-encrusted” or whose metallic elements rise sharply out of the surface of the piece to create an almost topographical landscape of color and texture.
Maria Damon, “The Millay Sisters Learn to Talk Dirty: for the Millay Colony for the Arts.” Damon: “Norma Millay describes how, when she and sister Edna moved to Greenwich Village, they adjusted to and adopted their bohemian pals’ rough language while doing their mending. V is for Vincent and other feminine relevancies; the natural details — wild strawberries, wild thyme, a butterfly burning at both ends — nod to the Millay Colony in Austerlitz, New York, in high summer.”
5) Where do you get the materials and how do the materials turn you on? What are the dialogues between the materials and the artifact?
DuPlessis: I guess I am a natural hoarder — that’s the first thing to say. With collage, I collect materials, I try to be careful to use them up as fast as I can — or fast enough while honoring why they struck me in the first place. Insofar as paper or colored bits of things are a turn-on (in an erotic — “I think I’d like to do something with you” — sense), you can’t defer making something for too long, or else you don’t want to do it any more. I have a nice wooden box of materials in Philly (typically — I picked the box off the street …), and in Italy, we have — this is wonderful — an old stone sink in what used to be the kitchen (now my study) where I pile up materials. At home, I will sometimes use small things that have a long resonance for me — a doily that has been in my family for a while. (My mother was a hoarder, too …)
I do try to obey the impulse when it comes. I got very turned on by the Sheila Hicks show at the Philadelphia ICA (particularly her small pieces) — and in 2011, I made some collages that “punned” on weaving and sewing, like “Odd,” and “Useless Patches” and “Loom.” (See collages here.) Recently (in April 2012), I did my “13 Rays” — which turned out to be fourteen collages using the same postcard photograph of Ray Johnson as a base. I had built up a head of steam about it — and so I did it! This is one advantage of retirement, but I still have bad habits of deferral built up over years of discipline (mainly the semester discipline). It takes a while to realize I can do what I want almost when I want to.
For materials — I have picked things off the street. In fact, I generally want to pick more off the street than I do, but feel a little odd doing it sometimes. (I probably need a plastic bag and plastic/latex gloves, to carry everywhere.) When we were in North Carolina, I saw some little piece of metal in a parking lot that I repressed wanting. Two days later, Bob and I scoured that same parking lot to find the little piece! We found it! It’s now in a collage!
I use Dollar Store frames. I often still need a frame to “see” the work, though this is changing a little. I admire both Susan Bee and Joe Brainard for their assiduous use of notions stores and el cheapo things. Like Brainard’s PRELL shampoo altar.
Utrecht Art Supply here in Philadelphia makes me drool, even though I hardly know how to use one single thing in it and have to ask naïve questions all the time. They are very nice.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis, from “13 Rays.” Postcard size, two altered images of 1968 photo of Ray Johnson (unidentified photographer?), 2012.
Repeating question 7) Where do you get the materials and how do the materials turn you on? What are the dialogues between the materials and the artifact?
Damon: I think I’ve responded to this earlier. When I first started, I simply used all the available yarn in the family house. For a number of years my mother imported handknit sweaters from Denmark, so there were yarn samples in the attic, as well as old garments or abandoned knitting projects (everyone in my family has hoarding instincts). Also, there were a number of cotton mills in Uxbridge, MA (see, for example the Stanley Woolen Mill or Bernat Mill), who would sell mill-end yarn on cones very cheaply, and a few times a year my mother and I would do our mother/teenage-daughter bonding by making a day of it: driving out to various mills and buying up “supplies” — warp-yarn on huge cones that would last me years. These experiences would somehow touch me; the mills were dilapidated, the people humble and warm, the yarn initially very good quality but declining noticeably over the years.
Now I buy yarn at bargain bins in yarn stores, or for specific projects I go to certain stores that have yarn not just for knitting (which comes in balls or skeins) but for weaving (which comes in cones). Often I don’t buy for projects at all but just go by what appeals. There used to be a discount store in Minneapolis, Banks’s, that carried all kinds of wares. Once about twenty years ago they had a shipment of many gorgeous and exotic yarns because a yarn shop in my homestate MA suffered a fire. I bought $600 worth (and this is at a 75 percent discount) of angora, silk, wools, cottons, etc. simply because it was pretty and cheap, and still haven’t used it all up. For a while I wove tallitot for kids who were going up for their bat or bar mitzvah, and would order undyed silk from Henry’s Attic, whose products I adore. That was fun; the kids would pick out what colors they wanted and a general design, and I’d start in; about halfway through I would have the kids come and do some of the weaving themselves.
A few times I’ve inherited sewing kits that include “notions” (great word, no?) [Rachel: yes!], knitting needles (for which I imagine I’ll someday have use when I learn to knit), miscellaneous tapestry thread that I incorporate into weavings, etc. I have many of the poet Anne Blonstein’s sewing notions. It gives me a special feeling when I use these “legacy” materials or tools (measuring tapes, pins, etc.) because again I sense that I’m participating in a tradition of practice that crosses generations, indeed, the line between the dead and the living, and I try to make something with the materials specifically for that person. Here the materials were not actually Anne’s but I made it shortly after I acquired them, to be presented at a memorial celebration for her in November 2011 in Basel.
HOW DO THEY TURN ME ON??? HOW CAN I COUNT THE WAYS???
Maria Damon, “Listen to Your Mothers! for Adeena Karasick.” Damon: “S, M, and A (shin — the tooth, mem — water, aleph — the ox) are referred to in Kabbalistic hermeneutics as ‘the three mothers,’ and they spell out ‘LISTEN.’ Adeena Karasick and I wrote a piece that draws on the feministic text/textile pun ‘shma’atta’ (the text at hand) and ‘shmatta’ (rag). The ox’s horns double as moms’ megaphone here.”
Question 8) Under what circumstances do you make your art? Late at night? With music on? Spread out on the floor of a room in your home? At a different desk from where you write? What prompts a piece: a conversation? A nagging feeling that something must be done? A shape, color or word in your mind's eye? All at once in one go or over the course of a few weeks, months, etc.? Is there "revision"?
DuPlessis (answer to 8): Time — any time. Music, less so with collages than with poetry and other writing.
Place: my ultimate fantasy which I have had from day one of being a baby writer is to have a gigantic room which is all desk around the walls, where it is not bookshelves. The nearest I can come is one desk and one table. The desk is where the computer is and it is often CLOGGED with paper and books. Eeek. That’s in my study. (Or “that’s my study”!!) And that’s where I write. For making collage — the table is in the guest room (“Koré’s room”), an old card table with a plywood top that can be folded up when there is a guest, or just to de-clutter. I have that wooden box with collage materials in the corner of that room. But I actually do make collage in either place. The Ray Johnson series that I just made, I had contemplated and needed to DO, and since Caroline Bergvall was in the guest room for three nights, I just made it at the desk here in my study. You don’t need a lot of room for scissors and glue.
I also do collage in Italy. There I have a table and a desk in an L-arrangement, and I just make the collages on either. Also a small narrow table I just put in my study there I collect materials there too, and either use them by the end of the summer or throw them out. I cannot imagine shlepping paper (etc.) across the Atlantic. Though I did bring a little back from New Zealand. Of course I bring the collages back.
What triggers a collage is also a great question. Sometimes I somewhat visualize them, or visualize the potential in a color or shape. This is uncanny to myself — I didn’t know I had it in me to do this. There’s a wanting and a needing around a color. Or there is a weird scrap of something. Other things then “fall into line.” It’s stepwise on one level (put this next to that and see what happens), and global (how does it look as a whole). These are simultaneous and also disaggregated judgments. The timing/tempo of judgment is fascinating — I am familiar with this issue from writing poetry. How shape and color get inter-involved is a terrific fascination and to some degree a mystery — it’s like I am re-inventing the wheel. Or I get turned on by some crazy label stuff. I love the color separations on the inside of cardboard packaging from the supermarket. I walk down the street and eye the garbage …
Sometimes, there is the material and the nagging sensation that there’s a collage in that/from that. For the Ray Johnson series that I just mentioned, I had snagged about twenty [free] postcards from the Arcadia College Art Gallery at the end of the show — the cards were of an apparently anonymous [at least unattributed] photo of Johnson taken in 1968. I began thinking — I have to “do something” with this. Or I have a piece of paper — junk mail, fund appeals, stuff with interesting colors on it. Sometimes I think — I’ll buy a frame (bless the Dollar Store!), which is how I feel a collage coming on.
The story of the Walter Benjamin collage (2012) is staggering to me. In 1966 (this is not a typo) I bought a sheet of stamps in France (like one centime stamps, the whole costing one franc or something). Bob remembers that I did this deliberately for a collage. I never used it. I saved it. About ten years ago, I pasted them on a piece of cardboard from a pad of paper (A bad idea, by the way — too acid; can’t remove it.) Still no buzz. Again I put it away. This summer, after a friend [Auxeméry, my French translator] sent me some info about the Walter Benjamin show at the Jewish Museum in Paris, I saw (visualized) what to do — and found this sheet of stamps (forty years old, untouched for thirty and then ten years … that itself is a miracle) and found an online a photo of Benjamin — his haunted passport photo — that just fit the stamp size and pasted two on the sheet, and called it (after much thought) “Commemoratives.” It is really something. (That one is up on Alligatorzine.)
I also save materials — that sheet of stamps is probably the most exaggerated and intentional case, though I am somewhat of a mini-hoarder as I said before. But sometimes these materials go sour, and the potential in them seems to evaporate before I get to them. And sometimes the materials seem over-determined — I had a scrap of pretty fabric from a jam jar someone gave me, but it was not working, because of the all too “calico” readout of the fabric. This might in fact be what Schwitters meant by Eigengift — but it is more like the social meanings and references that the scrap accumulated were too much because too specific. Like using the wrong typography for a text.
Sometimes when there is “too much” intention — the things end up looking really bad. Too much “idea.” I did a series of five collages last summer on the five rooms of Buddhist meditation (you know, blue, red, yellow, white, green in some order) and frankly, they were, as a series, very labored. Kind of dull.
I don’t like when they look labored — sprezzatura is the thing. Click — it all fits together in odd and interesting ways.
Many are done almost at one go — or sort of, but sometimes I leave them to evaluate what’s there and see what’s going on. Knowing when to continue and when to stop is of course another key “art activity” that I am familiar with in poetry — “what’s too much, what’s not enough” are always the great questions.
Sometimes I overload them and don’t like them. So I do occasionally revise — rip up, cut and take only part, prune something. Or add something. Sometimes that works, but sometimes it is just a bust.
A word generally does not trigger a collage, but a title as part of a project could — like [the word] “primer.” I am possibly working myself up to a number sequence. Which of course could be endless. I have 1, 2, 3, 4, and another 4. It is a very odd idea — there is all this junk around with numbers on it … I am getting quite interested.
Question 8) repeated: Under what circumstances do you make your art? Late at night? With music on? Spread out on the floor of a room in your home? At a different desk from where you write? What prompts a piece: a conversation? A nagging feeling that something must be done? A shape, color or word in your mind's eye? All at once in one go or over the course of a few weeks, months, etc.? Is there “revision”?
Damon: I start to feel a little crazy if I’m not doing something involving color, especially in the winter months in Minnesota. Often a project simply starts with that restless, irritable feeling that life has become brittle. [Interruption from Rachel — that’s when I know I have to be writing a poem — yours is a great description of this state.] So with weaving often I just plunge in, at odd moments between daily or professional tasks. I start winding the warp, some generic color that I can match with a lot of my palette, on the warping board. Then step by step as I have time I set up the loom. Some steps of that process, such as threading the heddles, are becoming more onerous as my back feels its age. (One thing I love about weaving is the childishness of many of the words for the paraphernalia: bobbins, shuttles, spools, heddles, treadles, needles, raddles, tabby, woof as a common alternate of weft, niddy-noddy, etc.) I used to have music on, now, since 9/11, it’s usually the bland, soothing tones of NPR. Or the raucous, joyful intensity of Iggy and the Stooges. With x-stitching, it’s most often an exchange with a literary interlocutor that plants the restlessness seed. I have a sharp memory of being at the Diasporic Avant-Gardes conference in 2004 organized by Barrett Watten and Carrie Noland, and during someone’s talk (Bruce Andrews’s? Kamau Brathwaite’s? I can’t remember) became suddenly possessed by the need to give form to the word “form” in the context of diaspora. What kinds of new cultural and expressive possibilities did this matrix, of form and displacement, generate?
Question 9) About how big are your works in general? Is there any inhibition about size or shape? That is, do you want to make smaller or larger works? Do you want to make related kinds of works (such as…)?
Damon: The woven pieces are either baby-blanket sized (three by three feet), scarf-sized (six and a half by seven inches), or shawl-sized (three by seven feet) because of the restrictions imposed by the width of the loom and the nature of the artifact. The x-stitched pieces are far smaller, five to eight inches square or so. I would like to make wider woven things, which I can only do if I sacrifice pattern. I like the size of the x-stitches; I think of them as tokens, like Creeley poems, easily transferred from person to person, through the mail or face-to-face, fitting into a manila office folder, I like Vicuña’s term, “precarious,” to describe the small scale of the objects, though she uses the term to describe far more fragile and ephemeral pieces than mine.
Question 9) repeated: About how big are your works in general? Is there any inhibition about size or shape? That is, do you want to make smaller or larger works? Do you want to make related kinds of works (such as…)?
DuPlessis: This is an interesting question for me. The basic sizes are five by seven inches or eight and a half by ten inches. This is true for the majority of my collages. It is very hard for me to go bigger, though my Benjamin collage is eleven by fourteen inches. Before we left for New Zealand (February 2012), I was making a conscious effort to see whether I could go larger than my initial comfort zone. (So I bought a bigger pad of good paper.) It was very hard. It’s a question of how much space you can “control” or “be in charge of” without becoming flaccid or uninteresting. So I guess I am tentatively exploring what it would feel like to use a larger space, and I have made some works that I like on this larger scale. Scale is an astonishing fact of art — and a very intense choice of mechanism. I see this now. You’d think I’d have seen it earlier, given the scale and size of Drafts.
There’s no way to end this — but as I close (we are e-editing back and forth) it is clear as clear can be that these individual practices are aesthetically, emotionally, and semantically vital to both of us, “despite” their not being anything like our professional identity. Yet these visual works have grown organically and powerfully and waywardly from the other work we do. It is striking to feel this need and desire in another person. Thank you, Maria.
Damon: Thank you, Rachel, for having shown such interest in my work. Our “hand/eye,” tactile practices are, as you say, intimately related to our professional practices, sometimes predating them, and I see this conversation as a significant gesture in the interest of disalienation.