Sharon Dolin interview, with John Hoppenthaler
The poems featured here are from your forthcoming collection, Manual for Living. You’ve said elsewhere that the book has its roots in The Enchiridion of Epictetus (written in 135 CE). Could you tell us a bit about this and how the several Ekphrastic lyrics, after works by Francisco Goya, play into the collection as a whole?
The first section is the title section, Manual for Living, and the 24 short lyrics take their jumping-off point from lines from Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher. They are a tongue-in-cheek self-help book, part ironic, part serious, part serious play. I see the three sections of the book as different perspectives on how to live.
The second section is “The Black Paintings” of Goya, from which the first four poems (“Frail Pair”; “Or, Judith”; “Saturn”; and “Maja”) published here are taken. In putting together the manuscript, I came to see the poems in this section as a bleaker vision of how to live. Regardless of whether Goya painted them or not, the series of paintings were found on the walls of his country house after his death. They are a visual record of a dystopic view of old age and death. I saw them at the Prado and was struck by their dark power. “Maja” draws on some of the facts of Goya’s life, particularly concerning the young woman, Leocadia Weiss, who was his maid and lover in the country villa where he lived and painted these paintings.
Of course, you’ve been interested in Ekphrasis pretty much from the beginning of your poetry writing journey, I think? What draws you to this kind of engagement—almost a collaborative engagement—with visual art? In what ways does it direct/inform your poems? What styles of art seem most apt to spur your creative eye?
I am a very visual person. I have had visual artists tell me I see with an artist’s eye. Anything I love, anything I feel passionate about, can be an object of engagement for me—and that includes visual art. I grew up in Brooklyn, going to art museums: especially to the Brooklyn Museum and MOMA. As far back as my first book, Heart Work, I was writing Ekphrastic poems. For instance, there’s a poem in it called “Colorblind Painter,” which is based on an article I’d read by Oliver Sacks in The New York Review of Books that was accompanied by reproductions of the paintings the colorblind painter had made before and after he’d gone colorblind. Serious Pink, about to be reissued by Marsh Hawk Press this May, is a book about my love affair and dialogue with abstraction in the work of Richard Diebenkorn, Joan Mitchell, and Howard Hodgkin. In Burn and Dodge, the cover image is of Giotto’s depiction of Envy and Prudence, which gets worked up into my poem “Letter to Seven-Hundred-Year-Old Invidia in the Scrovegni Chapel to Be Folded in the Shape of a Snake Swallowing Its Tail.” In Whirlwind there’s an odd poem, “Not a vase,” that is a paean to Giorgio Morandi’s still life paintings through the rhetoric of negation, which was the only way I knew how to praise them. And I have also written a diptych about two graffiti paintings of José Parlá, another of whose paintings is reproduced on the cover of Whirlwind. I am drawn to writing Ekphrastic poems in dialogue with abstract works because it is freeing. It gets me out of the realm of description, though I like description too, as the Goya poems demonstrate.
What draws me to Ekphrasis? I don’t think I can say exactly, except I don’t see Ekphrasis as collaboration so much as a conversation or interaction: a response to what moves me. The painting, sculpture, photograph, or object already exists. Images may employ any of the senses, but let’s face it: the visual is primary. Color is often key to me. Howard Hodgkin said it best in the epigraph I use for Serious Pink: “I long to make pictures that will speak for themselves.” My poems speak for themselves, no matter their generative origin. Ekphrasis is an endless subject for me—a lifelong passion. Perhaps that’s why I’ve created my workshop Writing About Art in Barcelona.
I’m interested in how you are using the mathematical symbol » in the poem “Moth Over City at Dusk.” In mathematical terms, the symbol means that what follows it is much greater than what precedes it, as in x » y means x is much greater than y. I suppose it’s also used in computer scripting language or in other ways. How does it function here? Is it a way to try and increase the available palette of signs and language so as to creep a bit closer to the ineffable?
“Moth Over City at Dusk” is from the third sequence in Manual for Living. Of Hours is a contemporary book of hours that initially sprang from my encounter with Ellen Wiener’s paintings called An Album of Hours. The poems began as an Ekphrastic sequence and quickly moved into something else: what H. L. Hix has called “submerged ekphrastics.” I sought to wrest back the canonical hours, upon which the paintings were based, into its Jewish context, though I hope the poems have universal appeal, much the way the biblical psalms do. I think of these poems as psalms whose addressee is God (you).
At first, the poems deployed only spaces (lacunae) inside some of the lines: what I call visual caesurae. In revising them more recently, I introduced the symbol » into them as my way of gesturing toward a transcendent movement. Yes, “to creep a bit closer to the ineffable,” as you put it. At times, I found the white space a bit too static and I was growing tired of dashes, which I have used for a long time. I have always admired poets who find new uses for punctuation, such as A. R. Ammons’s ubiquitous colon and Alice Fulton’s use of the double equals sign: ==. I don’t in any way want » to stand for “much greater than.” I saw it as an arrow without its tail—a vector or trajectory of energetic movement often, in fact, in a list of equivalent things.
One thing I’ve admired about your poetry is that it’s rangy, committed to no particular register, form, or syntactical design. This appeals to my own eclectic nature, but I wonder how you might speak to it?
Thank you for saying that, which I take as the highest compliment. As someone who’s been writing poetry seriously for forty years, I have to keep myself engaged and alive in the process of making poems. I’ve seen too many strong poets end up as mere parodies of themselves, after repeating the same style in book after book for decades. I think of Picasso (that old machista), whose work I grew up viewing in frequent trips to MOMA. He was always up to something new—as was Matisse. Picasso also gave me the courage to write about anything and anyone: not to hold back nor to censor myself. I keep trying out new things, which sometimes are old things. In my last book, for instance, I published my first triolet and my first cento.
We seem to live in a moment in which interest in the chapbook is undergoing a bit of a renaissance. Perhaps they were undervalued because of their limited weight in the academic dossier, I don’t know, but there are more chapbook contests, more critics willing to review them, and more journals willing to publish the reviews than I can recall being the case during my life as a poet. You are certainly an advocate for the chapbook. You’ve published five of your own and serve as Director and Co-Judge of the Center for Book Arts Annual Letterpress Poetry Chapbook Competition in New York City. Why chapbooks?
We all have a liking for the small, the hand-held, the book that truly fits in a pocket or can be read at a short sitting. Part of the reason I began the chapbook competition at The Center for Book Arts was because the focus there was on creating one-of-a-kind artist books. A limited-edition chapbook of poems seemed to be the perfect length book for letterpress, which is very labor-intensive. We used to set all the type by hand. Now the book artists use polymer plates, but each page of each book is still run by hand through an inked, flatbed press. The results are beautiful, tactile, readable objects. I’ve persuaded many a poet to be the final judge for this competition because of the added incentive that they will have a short chapbook of their own work published along with the winning chapbook. In this virtual age, there is a growing nostalgia—or a better word might be longing—for the handmade. There’s nothing like it.
I read somewhere, maybe in your blog, that you are working on a memoir? If so, is there anything you can tell us about it? What is its focus? When might it be published?
In keeping with your comment about my range, I have ventured into prose: first, with sequences of aphorisms connected to place. This has been an ongoing project for years that will eventually become a book. Some will also be featured in a forthcoming Short Flights: Aphorism Anthology. I have spent the last two years working on a prose memoir called Hitchcock Blonde: Reading My Life Through Ten Alfred Hitchcock Movies. I think the title says it all. It’s a hybrid memoir, part essay about my own quirky take on Hitchcock, part memoir about a certain time or aspect of my life the movie evokes. I use Hitchcock as an extended metaphor, rubbing characters or events in the movies up against those in my life. You can read one chapter, “Strangers on a Train and the Stalked Woman” online at Drunken Boat: and another, “The Man Who Knew Too Much and the Girl Who Knew Too Little,” this fall in Five Points. At present, I am in search of an agent and/or publisher for this project.
Poems after Goya
Rest upon it—cane despised
scythe. Not blessed
upon bat-faced smother-mouths
your back. Purse open your purse (you’re a spent purse)
long beard of last words
your whole life declining
Could be his hand under
her skirts. Or his blurry
shoulder on top of which
Once you are dead you become nobody—
or only body—corps exquis without
the head. Light picks out underside of
her breast-colored elbow
of her raised right arm—her striking arm—
her left breast left shoulder up to the death mask
that has become her face:
Fire-lit. Or blood-lit.
Her bonnet her loose-fallen scorpion ringlets.
The sword. Perhaps she has not yet done it.
No blood no blood. Or only a little on
her lion’s paw hand.
Who am I? Her nurse profiled by fire,
having witnessed—or about to
witness—my hands filling up
with prayer or a spell.
After which I’ll come running:Damp cloths. Water basin.
Time eats me:
my hands my head
up to my torso
my woman’s buttocks—
to rest upon—
only in shadows
can I hope to survive
under printer’s ink
under raven sky
Is this what wedlock can come to?
How could you think
you could grip my spine like a
walnut and prize it open for
the twin halves of flesh.
So this the cost of your lap:
your bearded age, gape-mouthed furor
my skin might hold. Shadows
you’ve never tasted: What figure is it whose
head grows back? That’s me:
de Milo Gorgon in search of herself.
Your bony knees, stringy thighs
may be a Titan’s: how could you hope
to eat my heart—sealed in a canopic jar
’til I’m finally done with you.
III: Resurrected Heart
Replant in a chest of honey
restart the pump for eyes
(not devouring coins of . . . )
river of liquid irises
slip me in and out
return me to slaking sheets
the thirsty page.
IV: Natal Chart
Saturn, ringed vapor-slow,
you always sit
in my first house
on my chest, morose,
you suck air of
ambition from me
Befriend Time. Workon long-term projects.]
though my leonine natureis restive lightning-
quick for the kill: can’t wait
for the slow fall of
minutes that measures
the distance I have yet to come.
[I want to get married
in a little
Mantilla’d in black lace, of course
I could be Melancholy: foreseeing
the old man’s death and my own penury—
left with a few coins, some furniture,
his portrait of me as a milkmaid in Bordeaux.
Even I don’t know if Rosario
(La Mariquita as he calls her)
is his daughter, but she draws
just like him. If you find me here
in funereal dress, leaning my elbow
on the tomb he prepared for himself, know that
my razor tongue—unable to pierce
his deaf ears—cuts
Moth Over City at Dusk
I am kneeling on spindly legs
loris-ringed eyes in my wings » I am drawn toward
this fading June bright » I cry out
to you after having borne my son:
Am I left to moulder in the late light X-raying
the leaves of me? I can no longer bear a child
and the city catacombs me as I listen
to the laughter of women with babies.
Honeycombs of light are taking him from me:
surely with his dark glasses he holds his own
gaze » This is the hour of failed hope.
I am not sitting by the waters of Babylon »
My lyre is not yet unstrung but I am weeping
into the watery age I have become: whatever beauty—
a turned page » Who praises the silk moth against
translucent flowers » Zion streaking through the blinds
of memory » My sky is round as my scalloped life.
O give me the strength to unbend my spine so I’ll ascend
over the Hudson to that island of wet wool and kerchiefs
where so many before us disembarked.
O do not teach me to number my days but to raise
them up to you » In the roseate dusk over
darkening waters teach me to praise the impending