Thank you to poet Chris Hansen-Nelson for today's guest blog post about seeking poetic inspiration in a variety of art forms. We met studying poetry as graduate students at Sarah Lawrence College and have continued to workshop poems throughout the years. His feedback and kindness has been a gift to my writing. I think you'll find the same for your own writing in today's post.
Chris Hansen-Nelson comes to poetry after successful careers as an actor and director in television, film and theatre. He received his MFA in Creative Writing: Poetry at Sarah Lawrence where he studied with Dennis Nurkse, Suzanne Gardinier and Stephen Dobyns, amongst others. Since then he has worked extensively with Heather McHugh and more recently with Ellen Bryant Voigt. He has published in The Gallatin Review and Storyscape, among others. Currently, he is working on a manuscript length series of persona poems in the voice of the Preacher Casy, a character in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
An Invitation to Seek Out Art Forms
Thanks for the invite Chloe. What I thought to note was my recent experiences with other artistic disciplines and the effect of this exposure on my writing. I’ve been working for about a year on a manuscript consisting mostly of persona poems in the voice of a character from “The Grapes of Wrath” – the “Preacher Casy.” As part of that pursuit, I looked long and hard at a famous series of photographs by Walker Evans that were commissioned to accompany a book by James Agee, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” (a truly worthy read), about itinerant Alabama farm workers and their families during the Depression, as it was relevant to my topic. It was the fundamental simplicity I saw in the faces of those people that struck me. It reminded me of the complexity of my life, of the world in which I live, and how polar opposite, as a result, my perspective on everything must be from these people in Alabama in the 1930’s. Their faces reflect the essential nature, the basic struggle of their day to day lives, concerns that I have never had to confront, a primary lesson I must work to remember. It also re-opened my eyes to the value of confronting other types of art.
Then, in the past six months I chanced to see an exhibit of de Kooning at MoMa and, more recently, a play, “Red” about Rothko, and although I knew little about either, I found both to be remarkably moving and useful. De Kooning spoke to me about pattern and variation, a common topic in poetry, and also about the abandonment of classification by others of the work. He did what he did and said the hell with the then reigning school/church of painting. My current project, new ground for me, excites and informs me in process, but I wrestle with questions about its validity, its honesty, whether it is poetry at all, whether that even matters. De Kooning’s strength in the face of such would-be pigeon-holing encourages me.
Then, I saw a production of “Red” down in D.C. about Rothko. His passion, at least as depicted in this play, was infectious, as was his philosophy. I recommend looking up and reading the play, or, better yet, if you have the opportunity, by all means go see it. His exploration of borders, or so it immediately affected me, was all about pattern and variation. I immediately went to the Phillips collection in D.C. to check out his work in person and found the intensity mesmerizing. I moved beyond my simplistic observance of giant blocks of intense color in close proximity to begin to examine the borderlands between them that Rothko created. I found these frontiers between the strengths of these colors, these places where the colors began to fuse, or refused to fuse, to be a bridge, a DMZ, almost a conversation between different languages that did not need to comprehend the literal meaning of the others words. I read in the gallery handout, or maybe it was in the play, that my interpretation was not wrong. While it was not right, it was mine and therefore for the moment in which it existed, true.
This was an expanded understanding for me of the invitation to be open to whatever response is evoked, or provoked, a new clarity with respect to seeing abstract work, and a new window on the power of inference, of all the shadows available in writing poems. I rushed back to my manuscript with a passion to reflect that emotion and curiosity in re-visiting the work.
Also, last February, I had the good fortune to see the Merce Cunningham troupe performing their farewell tour in NYC. I am as woefully ignorant of modern dance as I am of abstract expressionism, but this piece was completely available to me. The nuanced expression of variation against the face of pattern excited me tremendously. The specific movement of an arm, repeated to the point of recognition, only to be slightly changed, to affect an intended, if unspecific, reaction. And, similarly, the pattern of dancers working solo, and then as duets, as triplets and then alone, again, stirred me. I borrowed a pen from my wife to jot down reactions as the piece unfolded, my impulse to somehow connect to what I was observing, indeed, participating in as an observer.
Finally, recently we saw Philip Glass’ “Satyagraha” at Lincoln Center, which was superb, and days later, in listening to Beethoven streaming out of an all-classical radio station in Portland, Oregon over the web at work, to get me through another day in the corporate world, I was struck by the similarities, or perhaps, more accurately, the lineage, in the pattern and variation. It was in the small series of notes in each, moments of simple, single notes standing out alone for a moment from the rest of the orchestration, moments where the great differences between these compositions and their composers disappeared. Somehow, I could imagine in that moment’s simplicity each composer working on this string of notes, and it moved me.
None of these examples of pattern and variation, which I but briefly touch on, were simple exercises in variety, of course, each variation was chosen surgically for effect, whether it was with respect to tempo or tone, or climax, or whatever. All of which one could spend an academic career dissecting. I myself was satisfied with where it took me in the moment and since.
Anyway, that’s the end of my first blog – an invitation, an encouragement to seek out art forms you know little about and let them wash over you. Fear not, while the water may be deep, or so I hope to discover, it is only as deep and as hot as you can stand at any one time, or so I’m counting on, and no swimming beyond your capacity is ever required. Enjoy!