This is an edited transcript of the Poetry Book Club discussion with Camille Guthrie.
Every month The Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts a discussion online with the club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Poetry Book Club click here.
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Camille Dungy: Well, here it is the top of the hour.
Camille Guthrie: Thank you so much for inviting me.
Mark Folse: I foolishly read the book through twice without looking at the back cover (probably did when it arrived but not when I got to it). The poems only really clicked in context of the author’s note. In an homage would it have been a good choice to put that up front? Reading that and fifteen Google minutes later and the poems all fell perfectly into place.
/s/ Art Ignoramous
Camille Guthrie: I assume you used Google to look at her artworks? Well, we did want to put “Poems for LB” on the cover, but it crowded the image too much. I’m glad it all fell into place in the end.
Mark Folse: Absolutely.
Camille Guthrie: I like searching in particular for the Spiders, as they seem to have invaded every museum in the world.
Mark Folse: What seemed remote at first came into perfect focus. I found the cells fascinating.
Camille Dungy: Mark, I’m curious what, beyond your being a good student, brought you back for the second reading. There was much music in this book about the visual to me. Was it something along those lines that kept you going?
Mark Folse: Yes, a musicality. And a language puzzle I was intrigued enough by the execution of to solve.
Camille Guthrie: I’m also very drawn to the Cells, which she made in the 90s. They are about pain, she says, “Pain can begin at any point and turn in either direction.”
Mark Folse: The interjections in Pink Days and Blue Days. What! Who! Will have to see if Camille has read that and been captured on the Intertubes.
Brian S: How long did it take you to put this book together, and were you working on other projects at the same time?
Camille Guthrie: Brian, I started the poems in graduate school in 1996 in a reaction after seeing “The Locus of Memory” exhibit in Brooklyn in 1994. I worked on them on and off since then, but it was only until she died in 2010 that I realized I had a book.
In “Pink Days and Blue Days,” I wanted to respond to the form of the piece, which is a tall metal pole with swinging arms, from which hang linen dresses embroidered with her childhood names. And other relics and sculptures. The poem is a villanelle and contains language from other works of hers. Like “Who Where When Why What.”
Mark Folse: And beautiful lines. “This operation forbids/nostalgia’s pink landscape” I could go on if I flipped through the book. I knew I was reading powerful poems, I was just lost at points without the context. I read formalism and think: Sonnets.
Brian S: Holy crap, I just realized that Des Moines has one of LB’s spiders. I’ve seen the sculpture hundreds of times–it’s in the middle of downtown–but I didn’t know it was a Bourgeois.
Camille Guthrie: Yay for Des Moines! Probably a cold Spider right now. The spiders represent her mother, as all the women were using needles in her childhood. Her parents had a tapestry atelier. Needles are about repair, for LB.
Brian S: http://www.desmoinesregister.com/pappajohn-sculpture-park
It’s an amazing piece in person.
Mark Folse: So does New Orleans, but I haven’t been over the see it yet. Was there something about the intersection of confessional poetry and confessional art that was part of this book?
Camille Guthrie: Mark, I guess that’s an issue with ekphrastic poems because you can’t always have the artwork that is the subject in front of the reader. Maybe that’s why Keats’s urn was not one actual urn?
Mark Folse: It was my own dumb fault for not reading to the end page or the back cover (lowers eyes) but still I thought a fair editorial question. That bit of knowledge fills the spaces on the page with light.
Camille Guthrie: LB’s work is indeed very biographical, very much about deeply personal emotions and memories. I’m not a confessional poet at all; in fact, it’s always quite a surprise to me if private things emerge in a poem! But I did have a powerful reaction to her work and was drawn to some pieces in particular more than others. I noticed recently that in my book I write a lot about the artworks about mothers and sisters, when many of LB’s works are about her father. A real patriarch.
Brian S: It did seem to me that the fact that LB’s sculpture was so family-driven that the poems couldn’t help but reflect that in a way. When I returned to the book a second time, I did so with Google image search on (while others around me were sketching a model) and the poems opened up in a different way for me. Reading it both ways was enlightening.
Camille Guthrie: Yes, and I did include some biographical information in the poems themselves: her sister was Henriette and had a stiff leg; she was born on Christmas Day by a river. But I didn’t want to be a biographer in the poems, I wanted the poems to be an enactment of what I experienced when I looked at her work, and how I interpreted what she said and wrote about her art.
Camille Dungy: Camille G., that’s a really interesting point about Keats’ urn being not a real one because you can’t always have art in front of a reader. But also, it seems that visual art AND poetry both grasp at what can’t quite be seen or articulated in the world, and ekphrastic work has this interesting difficulty of then having to describe a representation of a representation of that void.
Camille Guthrie: Wonderfully said, Camille D. I’m teaching a course in Ekphrasis this term, and it seems to me that modern ekphrastic work is always very concerned with problems of representation, of the artist, and with self-revelation.
Brian S: And that’s a limitation of language as well–it can only ever approximate experience, so it has to do something a little different to be as potent.
Camille Dungy: What are some of your ideas about other ways ekphrasis could be approached if not in this modern mode?
Camille Guthrie: There are so many ways to do it. Keats talks to the urn, then tells us what it says. I really couldn’t do that! I didn’t feel I was LB’s equal, so I didn’t want to presume. There are many ekphrastic poems which are really self-referential, like Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” I wanted to be in conversation with LB in the poems.
In traditional ekphrasis, it’s used as a descriptive moment to reflect upon the larger piece, like in the description of Achilles’ shield in the Illiad. But modern modes, like in Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait of a Convex Mirror” end up being just as much about the poet’s mind.
There are also amazing poems like Robert Hayden’s “Monet’s Waterlilies” in which he’s describing his reaction to the beauty in the context of war.
Camille Dungy: I love that Hayden poem!
Brian S: I’ve found that on the few occasions I’ve tried to write ekphrastic poems, I get too caught up in the piece itself. I don’t think I’ve written a successful one yet.
Camille Guthrie: It is hard!
Brian S: Closest I came was a poem about a piece of public art on a campus where I used to teach. A hurricane had knocked one of the pieces over, and when I mentioned it to an art professor, she hadn’t even noticed. The piece had been there so long that it was ignorable.
Camille Guthrie: That’s rather sad! It’s hard enough being an artist or poet.
Brian S: I felt like going down and signing my name on it, claiming it as a new piece, like I’d discovered a new planet or something.
Mark Folse: Once I got past stupid, I found you were very much approaching the artist and the art (which seems inescapable in the artists’ own context), not biographical but reflective.
Camille Guthrie: Yes, I didn’t want to just describe what I saw. I wanted something more like an assemblage of what I thought and felt looking at her sculptures and drawings.
Emily: I’m wondering, Camille, with the time you spent with these poems (15+ years, right?), how your dialogue with L.B. changed over time. Did your impressions of her work change dramatically as your life changed? Obviously, these aren’t impressions…
Camille Dungy: Were you actively thinking about what you DID NOT want to do when you wrote the poems, or was this reflection upon revision or compilation of the manuscript?
Camille Guthrie: Emily, it did change. I wrote the first poems when I was right out of graduate school. I had moved to Brooklyn, had fallen in love, and was pretty overwhelmed by the city. The poems were a way to concentrate on one thing; a sort of artistic discipline. Then, I put it aside after publishing some poems in journals, thinking no one would publish such a specific manuscript. When I realized that my editor at Subpress would do it–thank you Beth Anderson!–I was a different person.
So, when I started I was looking to LB as a role model: how to be an artist, how to be bold, dedicated to one’s art, uncompromising, how to be a mother and teacher, too. When I had to revise, I added new poems about her later works that I had missed.
Emily: Did this translate into major revisions of the early poems or what? Or would that not necessarily have to be the case?
Camille Guthrie: What didn’t I want to do in the poems? I didn’t want to be intimidated by her boldness. I wanted to pay tribute to her work and spirit, but I didn’t want to feel I had to cover everything in her life and career. I wanted to reflect her mischief, playfulness, and the very pained seriousness of her work.
I am an obsessive reviser. While some early poems stayed almost the same form, I did a lot of excising and moving around and word changing. It usually takes me five years to complete a book, but this was done in fits and starts over a long time. Assemblage, cutting and pasting, sketching, then poking around to get something just right.
Emily: That sounds like sculpture!
Camille Dungy: Did you see things in your process of creation that mimicked LBs?
Brian S: And you were doing other projects at the same time?
Camille Guthrie: Yes! When in an angry mood, LB said she wanted to make sculptures: to chisel, carve, cut. When happy, she wanted to assemble, gather, draw. I wanted the poems to have a carved quality.
Camille Dungy: I’m interested in the form the poems take. All that space between lines. The actual gaps that seem to reflect both your gaps in knowledge (or revelation) and the gappy-ness of much of LB’s work.
Camille Guthrie: I don’t know if my process mimicked hers. I just know that I tend to assemble the vocabularies I want for a poem, then I experimentally put the lines together; I often draw what I want on the page; then there is a long process of revising. I know that LB would sometimes wreck a piece if she was frustrated or angry with it! I am drawn to her way of drawing and writing; she called them “thought feathers”–a way to get things down on paper to make yourself feel better.
Mark Folse: Thanks CD, I had the same Q.
Camille Guthrie: Brian, I was writing other books at the time. I finished my first book, The Master Thief then.
Brian S: Draw what you want on the page, as in an image that the lines then suggest later on?
Camille Guthrie: Oh yes, I really wanted a lot of white space on the page. I was reading a lot of Paul Celan’s late work when I started the project. His poems are so dense, so many neologisms and compounds, and the white space lets all of the possible sounds and meanings echo.
As to the gaps in LB’s work, I think all of her work demands an immediate emotional response! And I did want a sense that the poems were “a thing made” as William Carlos Williams said. A thing made of words.
What I meant by drawing is that sometimes I sketch the shape of the poem. This doesn’t mean much if I’m writing a sestina, of course, but for this book, it was important to get a visual grip on the page. I was influenced by Barbara Guest and Anne-Marie Albiach, although they use the page much more expansively.
Mark Folse: At the end of many of the pieces there is a final stanza that reads almost like an Asian answer to Rilke’s or Auden’s Noble Sentiment, something less abstract that pulls the poem together like a cinch. Was that a conscious mimesis of traditional ekphrasis made your own, or just plain good writing?
Perhaps an example (starts flipping pages)
Brian S: “Janus Fleuri” maybe? “You choose enactment / & its difficulties / & delight in it”
Mark Folse: That and “Three Marble Spheres, Portrait.” “Beating the long wing / of necessity / up from clouds and caverns / Rebounding.”
Camille Guthrie: That’s interesting. I guess I would say that I am mistrustful of myself being an authority on LB’s work, so I wouldn’t want to make a move like Auden when he tells us what the Old Masters knew. I started the poems as a young woman poet with a lot of humility.
Brian S: That’s interesting, because I always imagine young poets as full of, well, anything but humility.
Camille Guthrie: Brian, were you full of bluster?! I was pretty full of nervousness. Still am.
Brian S: I certainly had my share, though I also feel certain that I wasn’t the worst of my cohort. I’ve gotten way more humble in the face of other work since then.
Mark Folse: Brian, I have long trolled the coffee houses and bars of New Orleans with my lamp and if I find a humble, virginal or wise poet I will let you know.
Young poet (to clarify)
Camille Guthrie: Yes, at times I do use “you” to address LB, the maker. Again, I was going for a conversational tone.
“Rebounding” is LB’s word from one of her pieces. She was such a master of language, so witty in French and English, and I wanted her to have the last word.
Brian S: By the way, I don’t know if I liked “Janus Fleuri” more before or after I saw the image of the piece, but I know I was changed by seeing it.
Camille Guthrie: “Janus Fleuri” is an intense piece! She is always up to something naughty and transforming with bodies.
Brian S: Yeah, the description said those were thighs coming out of the sides, but I’m not so sure.
Camille Dungy: Camille G., speaking of humility, what was it like to share this work with her estate, or what did you have to do in order to get permission for the art work?
Camille Guthrie: It was wonderful! The LB Studio has been incredibly generous. Wendy Williams let me use the images in an early reading, for journal publications, and for the book. It’s very rare, I think. I’ve been astonished.
Brian S: “Portrait” is, to me, a perfect way to end the collection. Just a marvelous piece all the way around.
Camille Guthrie: Thank you, Brian! I admit to giving her some heroism in the first and last poems, but I think she earned it.
Brian S: That hammer swinging through dusted air floes…I just want to smack something myself after reading that.
Mark Folse: “Bold she arose arranging” is as fine an epitaph as any artist could ask for.
Camille Guthrie: That’s really nice, Mark. I love to think of her handling a hammer!
Camille Dungy: Yes, Mark, that’s a good point. The epigraphs in this book were so intriguing to me. I found myself copying a lot of LBs words into my quotes file.
Camille Guthrie: She was a master of the aphorism. Like, “Self-expression is sacred and fatal. It’s a necessity.”
Brian S: And “Fillette” as well. I think I could just list the poems I loved in this collection. “accurate as the entrails of a rabbit / mischievous as a monkey coat.” Wow!
Camille Guthrie: Or, “Every day you have to abandon your past or accept it and then if you cannot accept it, you become a sculptor.” Or poet.
Camille Dungy: I read epigraph when Mark said epitaph, but, as Lucille Clifton would say, “the epi-things can crucial.”
Camille Guthrie: That monkey coat! She wore it in the famous Robert Mapplethorpe photo of her, holding “Fillette.” I really wanted to get at her irony and humor in that poem.
Mark Folse: Either reading…
Camille Dungy: “Every day you have to abandon your past or accept it and then if you cannot accept it, you become a sculptor.” Wow.
Brian S: Do you do any sculpting yourself, even as a hobby?
Camille Guthrie: No, I’m not very artistic. I’m not even crafty. Living here in the country, I’m surrounded by incredibly artful crafty people, and artists, but not me. But I love looking at art. What I miss most about living in NYC is the museums.
I know, Camille D, I used to turn to LB for self-help. Like, “Pain is the ransom of formalism.”
Camille Dungy: There is an element of repetition here. You (and LB) go back to the same titles or the same sort of ideas, the same bundle of words. Cell I, Cell II, Cell III etc. What was that like working through so much repetition?
Mark Folse: Do you take that Pain is line to suggest Bourgeois wanted to be recognized formalistically and not as the mother of “confessional art”? (Admittedly looking at her work online I don’t see where that’s even a rational question, but the line puzzled me)
Camille Guthrie: Yes, the Cells were a long series for her. I was so pulled into them; they are very meditative spaces. She often used repetition. One of my favorite drawings of hers is called “Je t’aime,” in which she drew that sentence more than 300 times. It becomes a plea, a demand, a prayer, a song. I think I’m also drawn to repetition and the same obsessive subjects.
I take it as LB saying that the Beauty one creates is never far from pain. So many of her works were about loneliness, despair, rage, but their formal qualities and demands were calming to her, strategies for reparation, survival, reconciliation, which she said is the most beautiful thing in life.
Brian S: Who are you reading right now?
Camille Guthrie: Right now, I’m reading for my class on Ekphrasis. Ovid, Homer, Virgil, Keats, Ashbery, Browning.
Brian S: Have you ever thrown in Merrill’s “Self Portrait in Tyvek Windbreaker” to go along with Ashbery’s poem?
Camille Guthrie: Camille D, my work has a lot of repetition. I just got over a phase when I was writing a lot of sestinas. I like how forms give you a chance to mull over the same things and themes.
I haven’t, Brian. That’s a great idea.
Camille Dungy: And for you ekphrasis becomes a form. A fence, and also a field.
Brian S: I think the two poems mesh together so wonderfully, especially given the way you’re using them as ekphrastic poems.
Camille Dungy: An open field, I should say.
Camille Guthrie: The open field! Lovely.
Mark Folse: Beyond the barbed wire, another and another.
Camille Dungy: Here we are at the one hour mark. The time always seems to fly so quickly.
Camille Guthrie: Ekphrasis can be a battle for dominance between the image and word, but for me, I hoped it would not be so.
Brian S: Thanks so much for joining us tonight Camille G. And thanks for such a great book.
Camille Guthrie: Thank you so much for this talk, everyone!
Mark Folse: Thanks for joining us.
Camille Guthrie: Thanks, Mark, for your insights.
Camille Dungy: Thank you, Camille G, for the book and your answers. Thank you, Rumpus club members, for your questions.
Camille Guthrie: Thanks, Emily, too!
Emily: Yes, thanks. And thanks for letting me hang with y’all.
Camille Dungy: Good night, everyone. Stay warm.