Poetry by Laura Madeline Wiseman and Art by Sally Deskins
37 pages. Les Femmes Folles books, 2014
Reviewed by Julie Brooks Barbour
Intimates and Fools is a visually stunning book. This insightful collaboration between poet Laura Madeline Wiseman and artist Sally Deskins gives us not only a look into the bras that hold women’s breasts, but uncovers the history and honesty of what women wear beneath their garments.
One of the first things that struck me while reading was the sheer beauty of this book. We book lovers always appreciate a good cover, but this book goes beyond mere aesthetic printing and merges form with art. It is a true gift: the artwork as striking as the words that describe the bras women buy as they are drawn to their colors and shapes. Artwork is displayed not just on the cover, but throughout the book: on every page, woven throughout the text, curving around a stanza, or vice versa.
Wiseman’s poetry blends into the artwork, weaving words through brilliantly colored images. Her single long poem takes us on a journey through “this season’s colors,” women going “commando,” and an “areola darkening.” Wiseman’s lines are more than descriptions of the bras women wear, but of what these garments hold and hide: “mints, rose petals, silicone, foam” and “the surprise at winter’s cold.”
Echoing the book’s title, woven throughout the text are the many connotations of the word “fool.” One stanza declares “that’s the best thing a girl can be / in this world, a beautiful little fool.” In the next stanza, we hear an echo of Mr. T: “What’chu talking about, Fool?” Later, “I’m not a fool, said Judy Grahn. / I’m a survivor.” The poem ends, “There are no fools here, I say, / in a whisper, a prayer, a hope.”
Wiseman covers a lot of ground in this chapbook. Bras are personified, wondering why they aren’t worn or taken “out on the town.” They’re given away to Goodwill when they’re old, and new ones “swear they’ll save me. They like to lie.” When bras are handed down, from aunt to niece, the thirteen-year-old cuts out the underwire:
I didn’t need those manmade smiles
manufactured in sweatshops.
I cut out each flat metal grin.
in the trash.
“Bras are fools,” states the speaker, “they attempt to distribute / the weight of what we bare,” which takes us from bras to the body that wears them, lovers “coaxing each metal hook to release,” and a woman’s “elective double mastectomy.” Throughout, we never leave what holds up the breasts, what women desire in a bra, what women might do without them, even how these intimate garments are cared for over time. This is a book about the female body and what adorns it, what is bought and given away in so many forms.
I had the pleasure of talking to Laura Madeline Wiseman and Sally Deskins about their collaboration.
Laura Madeline Wiseman and Sally Deskins interview, with Julie Brooks Barbour
How did the idea for this project come about?
Laura Madeline Wiseman: I gave a reading from Intimates and Fools in Chicago earlier this month at The Book Cellar—this fabulous bookstore that sells wine and coffee among books, many of which are reachable only from the top of tall ladders attached to shelves one must climb to peruse. After the reading and while signing books, chatting, and happily watching copies of Intimates and Fools find homes in readers’ hands, one woman asked me a similar question. Not, How did this project come about? but, How did I first connect with Sally Deskins? I had a ready answer for her/your question, had she asked me it, but the question she did ask gave me pause. As she paged through the book, Sally’s vivid and bold illustrations below her fingertips in that brightly lit room among the warm smells of steamed expresso and the patter of talk and laughter, I answered her.
I first connected with Sally via a call for poems. Sally was coordinating a Lit Undressed performance in conjunction with the (downtown) Omaha lit fest . Lit Undressed would perform several poems and short prose pieces by a troupe at a club one night of that year’s festival. The theme was on clothing. I’d recently taken a master poetry workshop with Alicia Ostriker at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and had written a poem about my mother’s purse. I wasn’t sure if that counted as clothing, but I hoped it might and submitted. It was accepted and because my poem would be performed, I was given free admission to the event. It was such a delightfully, audacious night and even though my plush purple chair was tucked in the back, I could hear and see enough of the event to feel the rush and thrill to hear one performer read Billy Collins’ poem “Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes” and feel the giddy excitement when another performer did my piece “The Purse.” Later, I asked one of the performers if I might make a video of the reading. She agreed and it’s posted on YouTube . A year later, I ran across another Lit Undressed call for poems for their final performance. I submitted. My piece was accepted. I attended the event.
It’s hard to explain how thrilling it is to be in a room when someone else performs—not just reads, but embodies and presents—your poem. This wasn’t just a reading in a bar with blue and red stage lights, amid the sweet aroma of wine and yeasty dark beer. It wasn’t just the pulse and throb of sound, be it music or banter over the microphone. It was seeing a person inhabit every word of your poem, their body moving with your words, their voice purring and growling over the microphone while other performers danced and gyrated, waving fans and masks in the background. I’m not sure I breathed, or if I did breathe, it was something like a racer’s pant. I felt winded, thrilled, surged with adrenaline and astonished—all this, in less than a minute and a half.
Did I mention that the performer was a good-looking young man who also happened to be nude?
Well, I have now.
In the buff or not, I count it among one of the absolute highlights of my writing life to date. After he read “Ms. Behaving,” I leaned over to my husband and whispered, Why did we not record an mp3 of that? Later, I asked Sally if she would read my poem for a video on YouTube .
That is the longer version of the shorter answer I gave the woman at the Chicago reading of Intimates and Fools. How then, did Sally and I get from submitter and curator of a show to collaborators? Fast-forward: I had attended a solo art show Sally had in Omaha at the Star Deli Gallery in February last year. Shortly after the show and while I was a visiting writer at the New Hampshire Institute of Art in Manchester, I sent Sally a query email asking if she’d like to do a collaborative book—one with her fierce body prints and my poetry.
Her answer: Yesyesyes!
Sally Deskins: Yes, I was so thrilled!
I have to admit, Anthony (not his real name), the original reader of “Ms. Behaving” in Lit Undressed: Women in Disguise did SUCH a stellar job. Anthony rehearsed and, you described it so perfectly, really felt your writing—I and two other women enjoyed gyrating in the background to his rhythmic reading and the story of your piece.
Going back to how we met, Madeline wrote a lovely rendition of Lit Undressed, but I can offer the production side of such an undertaking. Behind the computer screen, I read through dozens of poems with a collaborator as we made selections on the theme. Madeline’s “The Purse” was a delightful, funny piece and subtly feminist. From behind the scenes I remember the young woman who read it, nude except for the big handbag, received amiable laughs from the audience at her sass. “The Purse” was definitely a crowd favorite.
I then dove more into Madeline’s work reviewing it for various publications which furthered my appreciation for her talent, passion for words and moreover, what poetry and art can do beyond the page/canvas. She contributed a piece that I loved, “Drinking the Witch’s Brew,” for an installation in Les Femmes Folles: VOICE exhibit I curated with artist Megan Loudon Sanders at BLK Gallery in Omaha in 2012 (it was a poem later collected in Madeline’s chapbook First Wife with cover art by Megan Louden Sanders). With this instance of combining her words with a visual piece, I continued to recognize her ardor for art and poetry’s analogous way of transforming perspective. I too love the stories that she tells—and so was immediately thrilled when she asked about collaborating—I knew whatever she would write I could create something inspired by it. Her words were already melted in me, fermenting my work subconsciously. Why not move it from the subconscious to the conscious this time?
I love the layout of the book itself, the artwork paired with not typed, but handwritten stanzas. Why did you choose this particular layout for the book?
SD: This was such an organic process for me; it is a bit challenging to answer that clearly. Before I left Nebraska (and my roomy creative space) last summer, I made about three-dozen body-prints (the work that I’ve been doing in the last three years now, where I paint on my various body parts and print it on paper, canvas or board) to have them ready to illustrate or transform for the piece. I read Madeline’s poem (loved it obviously), and let it sit while I moved across the country. I’d pick it up throughout the road trip and move, taking notes on imagery ideas, before I could sit down and start creating actual work.
To be honest, each page’s process was different. I didn’t originally start from beginning and go to the end. I selected phrases and sentences I liked, drew images, scanned them into the computer and tried out fonts, but nothing clicked. So I decided to write it myself, first writing the history of the bras in pencil on page one and two. I wasn’t happy with my own handwriting of course, so I erased that, and liked the erased, raw look, and kept some of that in there, as you can see.
Most of the pages went through various stages, erasures and rewrites. For example the page with the rose-breast originally had the text with the “rose,” but after sitting with it, I decided to use it for the “horrible stink” text. So these sorts of reorganizations and edits happened until the very end, when I just had to create a few pages to fill in the gaps. I also made some illustrations without the breast prints, to try and make literal sense of my more abstract imagery.
Anyway I think the written text makes it more intimate, more personal, to go along with Madeline’s sensuous writing and the theme of the piece. Usually my handwriting is pretty illegible so I had to really take deep breaths and write slow to create what has become Intimates and Fools.
LMW: While I was a Wurlitzer Fellow this past fall, Sally was hard at work finalizing the pages and sending me several ideas about how the text might look. My one request was that the text should be readable, whether it was handwritten, in a scripted font, or laid out in something standard like Helvetica or Garamond. Poets, of course, think about how a poem appears in terms of stanzas and line breaks. Line breaks and stanzas make meaning. When I teach poetry, one poet I often teach is Natasha Trethewey (Native Guard or Bellocq's Ophelia). While we’re discussing Trethewey’s work we attend to the tension of the line and the tension of the sentence and how those two work together in her poetry. Such discussions always produce insightful debate. Students begin to think more deeply, both in their critical writing as they analyze poetry collections and in their own poems, as they attend to the opportunity the line break offers in a poem. And teaching those texts has also made me think more deeply about the line. However, the line becomes more complicated when considering a visual collaboration. How does one decide how a stanza or a line appears when coupled with art? The page has been transformed. It’s no longer just white space.
When Sally began illustrating the words of the poem, she broke the lines where it made sense from a visual artistic and literary perspective, rather than the place a poet might break to create that tension the pause at the end of the line or the space between stanzas offered. It was a strange moment for me as a poet, because her breaks were not my line breaks, her stanzas were not my stanzas, the visual delivery of the words were not the visual delivery of the words I’d sent her, and yet, this was a collaboration. As Sally has said, her art was being transformed to tell a story about bras, why couldn’t my poetry be transformed to tell that story too?
The more pages Sally sent me, the more I believed and trusted her creative vision. The collaboration offered new line formations to emerge. While reading Intimates and Fools in Chicago this month, it reminded me of reading a children’s book because the collaboration gave me occasion to pause on pages, to add in commentary, and to emphasize words and phrases I might not otherwise if the poetry and art didn’t mesh together so well, if that white space hadn’t been transformed into something new.
The subject of women's lingerie is not one that comes up often, if at all, when artists explore the subject of the female body. Often the nude female body is discussed rather than the objects in the culture that make a body "feminine." Why do you think this is? Could you talk about why it is important that you both, as women artists, explore constructions that makes a body appear feminine?
LMW: I’m fascinated by the ways we gender the body in literature and art. For example, while I was writing my master’s thesis in women’s studies at the University of Arizona, I focused on the strategies the writers Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy, and Jeannette Winterson used to challenge gender norms in their books. For example, in Written on the Body, Jeannette Winterson refused to gender the two main characters, using instead the genderless pronouns “you” and “I”. Though the body is heavily described in Written on the Body, never does Winterson present a body the reader would undeniably mark as masculine or feminine. The body is ambiguous, making one wonder how we gender the body as we read. In Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, the protagonist journeys to a future where gender is moot, not that the biologically differences of sex are still not part of the physical body, but that the gender roles, the gendered behaviors, and the gendered clothing are blended and ambiguous. This is a world and future place not divided and organized along male and female lines. During my master’s degree, I read deeply in feminist theory, remembering always Judith Butler’s pronouncement that gender is a copy without an original and that we do gender. Clothing is one way we do gender. For many women, wearing a bra is not a choice. So then, for those of us who wear a bra, and thereby gender the body feminine, how do we come to face the cultural landscape bra wearing inscribes upon our bodies and our psyches as we go about being human, doing the creative work of our lives?
This collaboration with Sally with poetry and art about the bra has lead me to seek out other artists and writers who examine undergarments and intimate clothing as they too seek to understand how such items gender, sexualize, and erotize (or not) the female form. I’m currently enamored by the work of Lauren Rindaldi whose working on a series of selfie-like sketches of women in underwear, focusing primarily on women’s backsides. Such bold work challenges the hegemonic narrative about women as object under the male gaze, for some of these women are taking snapshots of themselves in the creative hand of the female artist.
SD: Oh, yes I love Lauren Rinaldi’s work. I too think that exploring femininity, undergarments, and the body is important in challenging our perceptions of the female body. Ever since I started this project with Madeline, I too have noticed more artists and how they choose to use the bra or underwear in their work to examine body image and gender.
A few weeks ago I came across John Currin’s “San Remo” (2013) in ArtNews . Currin has this classical skill of painting, and couples it with culturally odd body poses—as in “San Remo” in which a long-necked thin, extremely pale woman slouches over in her white sheer bra-top, her stomach protruding over her mini-shorts. She seems to be in a lavish room adorned with flowers and gold. Her smile is smug, satisfied, proud. Critics call it “grotesque portrayed with technical brilliance” but I see it as beautiful, and challenging the norm.
A few weeks ago at the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington DC, I saw the work of the photographer Annika von Hausswolff. I saw her “Hey Buster! What do you know about desire?” (1995, C-print, 22 x 28 cm). I fell entranced with the eerie image of a bra over a button down fit over a wicker chair, with golden heels near the chair legs, and an empty hallway beyond it. You can sense a lingerie model’s lack of presence, as her title suggests. We also think of Nam Jun Pak and Charlotte Moorman’s “TV Bra for Living Sculpture” consisting of two miniature TV screens which Moorman wore as she performed a cello (1969; see youtube performance here), perhaps speaking to technology and conflating sexuality. Before Lady Gaga, Carolee Schneemann used meat as bras and underwear in the performance piece “Meat Joy,” a 1963 performance exploring social dynamics and change when cultural taboos and restrictions are lifted (read more at Institute of Modern Art’s website here).
There are many more, but my point is, yes, it’s so interesting and adds a layer when playing with undergarments in examining femininity and body image. In fact I’m so curious about it, I placed a call for art and writing for my online journal, Les Femmes Folles , for the month of April (National Poetry Month). Every day I will post a poem and/or artwork around undergarments—“the intimates we hold dear—be they brassieres, boy shorts, merry widow stays (and more, or less)—and those who foolishly (and adorably) love them.” Details can be found at femmesfollesnebraska.tumblr.com/callforart-writing. I’ve really enjoyed the writing and art that has come in and I look forward to more!
Julie Brooks Barbour is the author of Small Chimes (forthcoming from Aldrich Press, 2014) and two chapbooks: Earth Lust (forthcoming from Finishing Line Press, 2014) and Come To Me and Drink (Finishing Line Press, 2012). Her poems have appeared in Waccamaw, diode, storySouth, Prime Number Magazine, The Rumpus, Midwestern Gothic, Blue Lyra Review, and Verse Daily. She is co-editor of the journal Border Crossing and an Associate Poetry Editor at Connotation Press: An Online Artifact. She teaches composition and creative writing at Lake Superior State University.