Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Authors on Artists: James Tadd Adcox on Thornton Dial

If I’m That Good They’ll Have to Kill Me 

by James Tadd Adcox

Who Got the Corn, 2012 

I can’t find a single picture of a piece by Thornton Dial that actually gets at what I like about his work. I look at these photographs and I think, that looks nice. They look very composed. They look skillful. In some cases they look pretty. Homey. Like something you might find at a particularly good craft fair.

When the security guard at the High Museum in Atlanta told me that I wasn’t allowed to take pictures, I thought: “No real loss.”

Lost Cows, 2000-2001

Faced with Dial’s work, and the failure of photographs to get at it, I want to start making grand pronouncements. Something along the lines of “art is that which cannot be photographed.” But I immediately start thinking of counterexamples, good art that stands up perfectly well to photographic reproduction.

I suspect, instead, that what cannot be photographed is the overwhelmingness. There are qualities of Dial’s work, conventional artistic qualities, like color, balance, overall composition, that come across perfectly well.

Certainly there are photographs that are overwhelming. But in such cases, I suspect the overwhelmingness is a property of the photograph itself, that there is no necessary connection between the overwhelmingness of a subject and that of the photo. Photographs tend to make subjects that are themselves overwhelming less so: mountains become pretty; the sea becomes harmless, a set design. Dial’s works—do we call them paintings? Sculptures?—become less threatening. The composition (which recedes in the immediacy of the experience when I encounter a work by Dial) becomes foregrounded.

High and Wide (Carrying the Rats to the Man), 2002

Dial’s work has been referred to as “folk art” or “outsider art.”

Strange Fruit, Channel 42, 2003

It is impossible for an English speaker to actually know what English sounds like, that is, to encounter English as a purely aesthetic object. We can imitate other languages without knowing those languages (as an easy example, think of the Muppets’ Swedish Chef), but it is the not-knowing that allows us to imitate them; it is more-or-less impossible for us to imitate English.

You might remember how it was before you learned to read. When you looked at writing, you didn’t simply ignore it; you couldn’t; it hummed with a sort of electric power; when you imitated it—most children do—you were not imitating the meaning of the writing, but the experience of it.

Or if you have learned another language: consider how different that language sounded before you understood it, how difficult, if not impossible it is, to hear the language now the way you heard it then.

Lost Farm (Billy Goat Hill), 2000

The media for Lost Farm (Billy Goat Hill) are listed as the following: desiccated goat, rat, and turkey; steel; rope; carpet; rope carpet; peach basket; wood; tire scraps; plastic toys; shoes; motor-oil bottle; wire fencing; chairs; ironing board; farm and construction tools; wire; paintbrushes; enamel; spray paint; and Splash Zone compound on canvas and wood.

 Trophies (Doll Factory), 2000

The art I like best exhausts me. The first time I saw Dial’s career retrospective Hard Truths, I couldn’t make it all the way through. This is now the sixth time I have gone to see Hard Truths, in the second museum.

New Light, 2004

At the High Museum, an older, balding man is leading two young boys through the exhibition. “That represents the hard times,” the man says, “the death of the animals at the farm.”

“What’s that?” asks one of the boys, pointing to the ropes.

“His frustration. He couldn’t get away from the farm.” They walk on to another piece. “And this represents when he got electricity.”

In each case, he knew just what each piece meant. He could look at a piece and say immediately, and what he said was what that piece was, precisely, and having pronounced this he and the two boys had nothing left to look at, and would move on.


James Tadd Adcox is the author of The Map of the System of Human Knowledge, a collection of stories, available from Tiny Hardcore Press. He lives in Chicago.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Authors on Artists: Nick Sturm on Broken Umbrellas


by Nick Sturm

But I don’t set much stock in things
Beyond the weather and the certainties of living and dying:
The rest is optional.

-          John Ashbery, “Houseboat Days”

I recently started following Neil Young on Twitter. In December he tweeted “I like weather.” “Driftin’ Back,” the first song on Psychedelic Pill, the second of two new Neil Young & Crazyhorse albums released in 2012, is over 27 minutes of rough-fuzz fuck you to expectations about trimmed up, digestible music. “Gonna get me a hip hop hair cut,” he sings between long stretches of trembling distortions, “Gonna get a hip hop hair cut / Gonna get a hip hop hair cut.” “I might be a Pagan.”


I really like seeing broken umbrellas. I have for a long time. The weather in Florida guarantees their appearance more frequently than any other place I’ve lived. Especially here in the capital where appearances reign. I walk through downtown after a storm and there they are, angrily discarded. Large trashy flowers. Someone got wet. I am being told something about value and meaning, about form.


“The open text is one which both acknowledges the vastness of the world and is formally differentiating. It is the form that opens it, in that case.” – Lyn Hejinian, “The Rejection of Closure”


It isn’t as simple as saying the umbrella is significant or beautiful because it’s broken. I’m not interested in the object so much as the forces it reveals. Of course the poems are necessary, but they point to the something beyond them. “Merciful, purple, my night hammer reeked” – Anthony McCann. Sometimes we get close to that something. Traces. Tears. There is an affective residue that comes off it. I have to acknowledge my own unknowable coordinates in relation to it. An aporic referent. The inexplicable. What happened or what made it happen? I don’t know. It’s not that easy. I don’t feel something because the umbrella’s brokenness puts it at odds with utility. I feel something because somebody’s life was altered, because they lost control, had to make a choice. And that life can be very far away, in all the ways that means, but now it has a shape. It won’t close.


“Aesthetic experiences are all I have.” – Jon Woodward, “Uncanny Valley”


I have two umbrellas. One is American flag patterned. It was in a closet in my apartment when I moved in. Sometimes when I’m restless I’ll open it and walk from room to room. I’ve done this a few times. It’s calming. Do you ever do things like this? Lay down on the kitchen floor? Take balloons to the beach? I think it is a way of saying to the world you haven’t got me figured out yet. To be inexplicable. Not for effect. But because you are being honest. With your artifice. Or otherwise.


In an essay called “The Esthetics of Ambiguity: Reverdy’s Use of Syntactical Simultaneity,” Eric Sellin quotes another essay called “Creativity and Culture” by Morris I. Stein:

The creative person has a lower threshold, or greater sensitivity, for the gaps or the lack of closure that exist in the environment. The sensitivity to these gaps in any one case may stem largely from forces in the environment or from forces in the individual.

Associated with this sensitivity is the creative individual’s capacity to tolerate ambiguity…. I mean that the individual is capable of existing amidst a state of affairs in which he does not comprehend all that is going on, but he continues to effect resolution despite the present lack of homeostasis.

I think what is most compelling here is that the description is not relegated strictly to process, but to all experience. These ubiquitous “forces.” Internal and external. At odds. But also a radical synchronicity. Which is also a dissonance. Sellin continues: “The creative experience is at once a self-realizing and a self-destroying process.” How true this is seems to depend on what we find valuable or meaningful, or how we even talk about those words. Like, is the poem a thing you make or a thing that makes you? Do you put the world in the poem or is the poem a world, worlds? How true this is seems to depend on how your attention then tunes itself. To be clear, without knowing.


Keats sits down to write his brother a letter.


The other umbrella I acquired in a bus terminal in Charlotte a few months ago. My flight had been cancelled, due to weather, and I’d spent the night on a friend of a friend’s couch. The next morning I walked downtown to catch a bus to the airport. I was standing in the wrong line when a woman on her phone, running by, knocked into my backpack. I staggered a little and turned to see her, still going, adjusting her purse onto her shoulder. She did not look back. I walked to where I was supposed to be and felt something swinging from my backpack. It was an umbrella. Black and white. It had somehow hooked on when she bumped into me. But a pattern I can’t describe. It was brand new. The woman was gone. It was tightly wrapped with a slipcover, which seemed unnecessary. I got on the bus. There was weather. I got on the plane.


“The rest is optional,” as Ashbery says, “the rest” being our weak grasping at certainty, our illusory belief in control. The poem continues:

                                                To praise this, blame that,
            Leads one subtly away from the beginning, where
            We must stay, in motion. To flash light
            Into the house within, its many chambers,
            Its memories and associations, upon its inscribed
            And pictured walls, argues enough that life is various.

Variousness. To look closely, but also widely. To have a feeling, but to allow it its own wild autonomy. A necessary openness. An endless inscription. There is no third term synthesis between certainty and uncertainty. There is a 50% chance it will rain today. There is a 50% chance it will not rain today. There is your door. There is your chance. And you walk through it. Not necessarily over and over. But continuously.


“I enter the poems as I entered my own life, moving between an initiation and a terminus I cannot name.” – Robert Duncan, “Equilibrations”


Jon Woodward’s Uncanny Valley is a book made of waves, breaks, dissipations, static, magic, fire, charges, accumulations, flows, overflows, currents, circuits, spirals, dissolutions, echoes, pours, wrecks, crystals, swirls, gushes, blasts, transformations, clatterings, unconnections, dismemberments. It foregrounds the impossible architecture of the image. “Put my hand / Outside a real horse.” It is a machine with skin on everything. “Everything is a receptive sensor.” The book’s first poem, “Huge Dragonflies,” is seven pages of holy stuttering fire around the phrase “Hope dwells eternally there,” a line repeated, distorted, and made so referentially manifold over the course of the poem that its promise of salvation is as terrifying as it is enigmatic. “The stars eat her body on the air.” Trees are syntax enough. The weather in grammar’s bodies.

            Frankenstein’s women who sing an inside-out melody
            Whose throats are haunted by stairwells’ throats
            To form the buzz-golemesses of speech
            Speech insects rub legs together who
            Make use of the stairwell but never the stairs
            To fill the stairwell with legs

The footnotes are numinous, too. Numerous. Instructions are included and/or (dis)assembly is required. “Lines notated like the previous two / Are repeated (as a pair) / As many times as the reader desires, / From zero to 255, before continuing.” This is how I know I am not “making” sense. I am participating in larger ineffable patterns. “Simply an enunciation.” 


“I keep hoping you will interrupt me.” – Darcie Dennigan, “Funeral for a Wallflower”


Some of my friends have confused the overwhelming joy I experience when I see a broken umbrella with a hatred of umbrellas that are not broken, or with a loathing for people who use umbrellas. This is not the case. I’m on the satisfied side of indifference knowing that people, including myself, have the ability to avoid, as much as possible, getting wet when it rains. It is important to know when to be practical. I think metaphors are very useful, too. I have more than two of them. But I don’t “make” them. I’m in a poem and there one is. Or I am trying to do something else and one latches on and I have to stumble around for a while before I know it’s there. I don’t know what they’re doing or where they came from. I don’t even necessarily want them. But I am using words, which know more than me, which are already spilling the energies of comparison, which already contain every accentuation of similarity and dissimilarity. I am humbled in the presence of the larger, uncontrollable patterns at work in and around me. When I am paying attention they come down on me. Not as metaphors really. As a sound. A gap. A force. A pattern. Plural of all these things. But those are already metaphors. They break. I am soaking afterwards. I don’t want to plan on it.


“Metaphors are not for humans.” – Jack Spicer, “A Textbook of Poetry”


“is the mouth where you live? is the mouth where you live like a push down on the land?” – Carrie Lorig, “c a t t l e h u r t e r”


What if I don’t want to make things easier on myself? What if I’d rather be wrong? Not as a position against, but because that’s what feels true? My least favorite poetry term is “controlled metaphor.” My least favorite poems are poems that are only poems. Poems are machines, not pets. And the most interesting things happen when they do not happen the way we expected them to. Forces are at work. Beyond our control. And as Dean Young asks, “What can’t be made more beautiful by an out-of-order sign?”


A number of RenĂ© Magritte’s paintings include images of umbrellas, such as Hegel’s Holiday. In MOMA’s 1965 book on Magritte, James Thrall Soby claims this painting “typifies Magritte’s deliciously subversive wit in that an umbrella supports a tumbler full of the water it is meant to repel.” Sure, but what’s more subversive is that no one is holding the umbrella. Ontologically, you could say it’s broken.


Chris Martin in an interview at The Conversant about his book, Becoming Weather:

I am interested in weather as a figure of humility enforcement. Nothing eats us anymore, or at least very rarely, and the only non-human thing tempering our pride is weather. And viruses. But I wanted to talk about weather. And I wanted weather to be inside our bodies. And I wanted weather to be linguistic. And I wanted weather to signal, once and for all, the inherent disequilibrium of existence.


Everyone knows what the umbrella and the sewing machine were doing on the dissecting table. But no one asks about the dissecting table. It was only the occasion. It very quickly became unnecessary. This is unfortunate.


Poetry workshops can be great. They have been very important for me. But they tend to be based on a performance of separations. Poetry from prose. Understanding from confusion. Completion from incompletion. Literature from art. Language from experience. Questions like, “Does every line end with a strong word?” are being asked. Is that how I’ll know I love you?


In Northern Florida there are signs along some parts of the highway that say FOG SMOKE. They are huge signs. They want you to know there is or was or is going to be FOG SMOKE. One part weather, one part transformation. A precise, exciting kind of incongruence. Like riding into Carrie Lorig’s nods. I am in something thick and turbulent and holy and untranslatable. A belief in difficult combinations. Where you came from and where you’re going are semantic concerns, if concerns at all. It is a feeling. More importantly, more potentially, Lorig’s poems are the monsters most of us avoid breathing into. She is brave enough, cares enough, to sing in the color of their mouths. THEY ARE ALL STRONG WORDS. It’s true, it’s not clear if FOG SMOKE is a warning or a warming up to how the world overwhelms us. But to be enveloped in that confusion, developed by it, to allow your whole body to confirm it, to be formed by it, is to have faith in the not knowing that gives opaqueness clarity. What you can see depends on how you define seeing, how you defire seething.

                                                                                    i am funny wet i am so stupid and wet.
            the pain cattle at last spit

blood when it rains. i made them crowd. i made them warehouse. i made them dots. i made them swallow cow magnets. i made them much. i made them much that don’t go. i made them in front of a flower standing that bust went out of. their body is not cleaned, but it is fed into a place sometimes language goes all the time.

Language, like the body, stores and leaks a lot of pain. But there is a desirous optimism rooting Lorig’s poem-fields. They are weather sounds. They are the broken umbrellas crawling out of the gutters and into your window. Reading these poems I am convinced there is no such thing as an excess of feeling. Only a continuous inseparability of language from life, word from body. I don’t need to understand. I can hear you.


Julie Andrews witchily descends from the sky with an umbrella in the 1964 version of Mary Poppins. A later scene includes this dialogue:

            Mr. Banks: Mary Poppins, what is the meaning of this outrage?
            Mary Poppins: I beg your pardon?

            Mr. Banks: Would you be good enough to explain all this?

            Mary Poppins: First of all, I would like to make one thing quite clear.

            Mr. Banks: Yes?

            Mary Poppins: I never explain anything.


“Indeterminacy.” – John Cage


The weatherman is the literary critic who only talks about the future. He is a complete failure. I love him.


When Gene Kelly famously dances through the rain with an umbrella in the 1952 musical Singin’ in the Rain, he doesn’t “use” the umbrella, or he doesn’t use it like it’s intended to be used. Rather, it becomes the thing beside language, his song, that heightens the effect of his love-struck whimsy. The early height of the song, and Kelly’s close-up in the scene, comes when Kelly takes off his hat, closes his eyes, and holds his arms out singing “Come on with the rain, I’ve a smile on my face.” Later, a cop approaches as Kelly splashes and stomps through puddles to the beat of the song, music that is obviously inaudible to this sudden manifestation of the symbolic order. Kelly steps back to the sidewalk, smiles, shrugs, closes the umbrella, therefore acknowledging its impracticality, and the last verse becomes his innocent explanation to the figure’s stern silence: “I’m dancin’ and singin’ in the rain.” The scene ends with Kelly handing the umbrella to a passer-by, an act of generosity that confirms to the audience he is worthy of Debbie Reynolds’ love. My students are often baffled when I suggest they write using language as if they don’t know what it’s for. It takes them time to see purposelessness as a kind of purpose. I tell them there is a feeling behind it. However vaguely, the desire to be transformed. To say “the rest is optional” is more than to shrug at the cop, it’s to make the cop powerless.


            Clouds, big ones oh it’s
            blowing up wild outside.
            Be something for me
            this time. Change me,
            wind. Change me, rain.

-          Alice Notley, untitled


The “X” in the title of Darcie Dennigan’s Madame X is that drenched, potential referent that guarantees the uncontrollability of our transformations. Inconsummate, unidentifiable, sexual, forbidden, multiple, a mask, a feast. It is both omission and content. Excess and absence. Content. There’s no keeping the words safe from their own weather. Or us, for what (that) matter(s): “This is me typing – Darcie. I am a human. / At least, when I am not a monster, with boobs and mouth and fingers.” Indeterminacy. Being people being trembling things leaking out of it. To be brave, and not, in not knowing. With our surety, over ourselves and what we make, so terrifyingly unsure. With that in mind, Madame X has catastrophe in mind. Titles: “The Atoll,” “The Contaminants,” “The Shooter,” “The Drought,” “The Half-Life,” “The End is Near.” Many of the poems are filled with ellipses, those trails into the ether:

It’s hard to tell the difference … if … you talk enough … I donned these black robes and lived in shadows and … It was time for a rhetorical gesture … Of course of course I nod with a nod … a nod magnanimous … a nod sagacious … a nod to a slide of particularly dark … trees … Of course the wilderness spreads woe unto himwho carries the wilderness with him … and the audience member … I had him … I knew … Thus … I parted my robes … to show … marching in and out of my cunt … the ants … Then … the robes … I shut … He … the audience … was no longer standing … very close … Goodness … ! I chided … Such distance …

Whitman, who also so irreverently took possession of the body, its meaning and value and ability, touches what can’t be touched with the ellipsis: “All this I swallow and it tastes good …. I like it well, and it becomes mine,” “I dilate you with tremendous breath …. I buoy you up; / Every room of the house do I fill with an armed force …. lovers of me, bafflers of graves,” “Confused …. a pastreading …. another, but with darkness yet.” Permeability. Performance. Perforation. Dennigan: “I think it has something to do with asking to be broken”…


Poems that allow the possibility of being damaged by the forces they should supposedly be in control of. How they accommodate that possibility. Exacerbate it. When I say my least favorite poems are poems that are only poems, I mean poems that don’t allow this possibility. Then I don’t feel anything. I do not experience the world in a controlled manner. I am alone in the produce section when a head of lettuce rolls off the shelf onto the floor and a void opens around us. Two weeks later at a wedding someone tells me a story about a lettuce farmer they know, about how much he loves growing lettuce. The void opens further. I am experiencing a metaphor. Synchronicity. Dissonance. A llama in Virginia looks up to a dropped cell phone call. I see something inexplicable. A kind of trembling. A few minutes later I tell Kelin about it. She says, “There’s magic here.”


“And the human witness of this passion is rightly stunned by the incongruity of it. Lifting a human being into a metaphor.” – Jack Spicer, “A Textbook of Poetry”


A song called “Broken Umbrella” appears on Martina McBride’s most recent album, Eleven. An obvious fusion of “Let it Snow!” and the YOLO sentiment of Kelly’s dance scene in Singin’ in the Rain, it is horrible. Yet, in the midst of its poorly grafted pop sentiment there is a welcoming of darker circumstances: “With your hand in mine, / The sun always shines, / No matter what the weatherman says. / I don’t mind the flood.” The flood. To be consumed. Even here, though it’s quickly swept away, is the recognition that our undoing is simultaneously our becoming.




I recently met a poet. This poet graduated from one of the most prestigious MFA programs in the country. We were at a bar. I told this poet that I take theory classes over workshops because they tune me differently, more dynamically. I think they are better for the poems, for now, for me being a human and a body in the world, which then goes back into the poems, which then goes back into being a human and a body, etc. I said this knowing it is not a common thing for a “creative writer” to say. Then the poet asked me, “Aren’t you worried about the theory affecting your poems?” I changed the subject and drank more beer. Behind that question is the thing I write poems in an attempt to obliterate: the failure of the imagination. I went outside and stood in the parking lot for a long time. For no reason.


“[T]he imperative of herdlike timidity: ‘At some point, we want there to be nothing more to be afraid of!’” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil


“When I wake up in the morning and it’s raining, I feel like rolling in the mud.” – Lyn Hejinian, My Life


I wasn’t in the “wrong line” in the Charlotte bus terminal. Wrong in relation to what? I had an intention. But more powerful patterns were already at work. Does every wrong line end with an unintentional umbrella?


Before any of the poems in Chris Martin’s Becoming Weather you have to walk through words from Alice Notley, Joan Jonas, and Friedrich Nietzsche. To be populated by voices. “I might be a Pagan.” To welcome the saturation. Agitation. Not over and over. But continuously. The alternative is an untenable single-mindedness, an illusory stability. “And I wanted weather to be inside our bodies. And I wanted weather to be linguistic. And I wanted weather to signal, once and for all, the inherent disequilibrium of existence.” To recognize yourself as not apart. This is an act of humbleness. Of compassion. “I’m asking you / to accompany me // through the deformations.” The hand absent in Magritte’s painting is recognized elsewhere.

In this abundance, this dance of answers, one answer was the form from which the others emerged. This answer, of course, was the body. And the body, of course, is full of answers. We called it corporeal order: that which speaks volume in overspill, excess, slip, and surprise; that which will not be still. We learned perpetual rearrangement, learned to stray from the dictates of convenience.

It is not a coincidence that all of these poets so acutely and relentlessly think from the body. (I didn’t plan this part.) “[W]hat is it a body does?” asks Martin. It repeats. It opens. It emphasizes. It always shifts along with “the shifting limit / of equilibrium ceaselessly / lurching askew.” It gets wet. I know myself, however indeterminately, because “repetition is desire.” Desire in all the connective ways possible. Am I worried the theory will affect my poems? Enter Ronald Barthes and that active (act of) be-coming. Am I worried that if it rains I’ll get wet? Enter Audre Lorde:

Another important way in which the erotic connection functions is the open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy. In the way my body stretches to music and opens into response, hearkening to its deepest rhythms, so every level upon which I sense also opens to the erotically satisfying experience, whether it is dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, examining an idea.

This opening is the foundation of my enthusiasm for the broken umbrella, that connection to the ineffable, to those patternless patterns my own necessary structures manifest themselves in relation to. I am always trying to become better through these moments. To be with Hejinian in the mud. To not set much stock in things, beyond (…). To be more than an audience. To love, however uncontrollably.

I           am       becoming                     weather
                        I don’t
                                                plan on doing
                                                                                    it alone

Jon Woodward's Uncanny Valley

Darcie Dennigan's Madame X

Chris Martin's Becoming Weather

Carrie Lorig's nods.


Nick Sturm is the author of How We Light, forthcoming from H_NGM_N Books, as well as a number of chapbooks including, with Wendy Xu, I Was Not Even Born (Coconut) and, with Carrie Lorig, Nancy and The Dutch (NAP). Poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Typo, jubilat, Sixth Finch, and elsewhere. He is from Akron, Ohio and lives in Tallahassee, Florida.