by Devon Balwit
78 pages— CreateSpace, 2018
Review and interviews by Alexandra Umlas
Devon Balwit’s Risk Being / Complicated is a book of poems inspired by the collage art of Lorette C. Luzajic. The slash that is found floating in the title prepares the reader for the gratifying journey through a book that is both and/or. It is a book of collage art and/or a book of poems. The art works with/or without the poems, and the poems work with/or without the art; but the two together provide a remarkable experience. The art and poems inside are risky, in the sense that they don’t seek to tell us what to make of them, but allow the reader room to explore, enjoy, and ask questions. There are no easy answers to be found here, and since many of the collages offer only partial words, or words that we cannot quite decipher, the poems offer an additional layer of meaning without telling us what anything “means.” Perhaps this is the reason for the second part of the title, “Complicated,”—the contents complicated in the clearest sense: not seeking to obscure meaning, but creating more of it by layering poem with art, blending two voices where we would usually have only one. The triangulation of reader, poet, and artist adds texture to the reading of the work, allowing the unexpected to emerge.
Luzajic employs paint, chalk, crayon, plaster, glue, and found paper (some with text) to piece together fantastically imaginative, colorful, thought-provoking pieces. Poetry itself is a kind of collage, where images, words, lines, structure, experiences, memory, and text are arranged and revised until the desired effect is achieved. Even Balwit’s dedication, “to the many artists whose work has inspired me,” speaks to the assemblage of artistic voices that have impelled this new material to surface.
The title poem uses Luzajic’s collage “The Risk of Being Complicated” as its springboard. Seven unrhymed couplets are paired with several slashes, perhaps to call attention to the multiple ways words can be read on the page. For example, the line “You vow to embrace yourself as you would any dying / animal” can be read, “You vow to embrace yourself as you would any dying” or “You vow to embrace yourself as you would any animal” or “You vow to embrace yourself as you would any dying animal.” Each way of reading is a new way of seeing the line, just as each layer of material in a collage provides an addition to how we see the whole. The last two couplets summarize what may be the desire of this book of poems:
let words unravel like laddering tights,
gapping to reveal warm / flesh.
The inchoate used to terrify. Now
it becomes / where you choose to live.
What is human comes peeking through the words and always has a presence there, like the “laddering tights,” that give us glimpses of the flesh. The “inchoate,” that is what is not fully formed or that which has just begun, is exactly where this art and these poems lead us, leaving us space to form the rest of the story, or perhaps several other stories. This is not a book of poems that tells us how to look at art, but rather, gives us an opening, a pair of fresh eyes, a different way of looking, not just at each collage, but also at the world and our place in it.
Balwit masterfully uses metaphor to express the ineffable. In the collage Run, Rabbit, Run, Luzajic renders a strange figure with long ear-like appendages. Balwit puts words to these appendages, calling them both rabbit ears and a crown: “Some days you are king, others / a rabbit, crown-ears pricked...” In this way, Balwit is able to capture the idea that we are both important and trivial, both “processional” and “clinging to life.” The first poem in the collection, titled “(Never) Let Yourself Forget How Your Story Began,” is fourteen lines, like a traditional sonnet, but not written in iambic pentameter. Also, the poem is set up like a prose poem, with edges that are even rather than jagged. In this sense, the poem shows that it is constrained to the page, just as a collage is constrained to the canvas on which it is created. And yet, because the poem goes so many places (from references to comics like Blondie to linguistic-themed words like “glottals,” “fricatives,” and “palatals”) it feels vast and unconstrained. The collage that prompted this poem, Let Yourself Forget How Your Story Began, is constrained by the bounds of its square canvas; and yet the materials used within the collage are also scattered in these bounds, dripping down the canvas, almost wildly. Form works paradoxically here to both contain the artwork within boundaries while allowing it to explode with meanings. Balwit employs form similarly to both bound and open up text, skillfully using the form of the Golden Shovel to “glue” lines from the biblical Song of Solomon into the right margin of the poem, “Place Me Like a Seal Over Your Heart,” growing a new poem from the roots of a previous one, in the same way that a collage artist makes use of previous materials and repurposes them to create new art.
The components of art: f orm, shape, line, color, value, space, and texture are beautifully executed in both mediums, so that the collection itself sings, “the universe unbuttoning.” In this collection, the universe is unbuttoned, and we are allowed to joyfully explore not only collage art and not only poetry, but what art and poetry have been, what art and poetry are, and what art and poetry are capable of.
An Interview with Devon Balwit
Alexandra Umlas: How did the collaboration with Lorette C. Luzajic come into being? How did you go about working with Luzajic? Did you discuss the art with her at all before you wrote?
Devon Balwit: I have been a long-time contributor to Lorette’s The Ekphrastic Review. Soon after being picked up by the journal, we became Facebook friends, and I discovered her collage art through that connection. I didn’t discuss her art with her before deciding I wanted to write about it apart from inquiring as to whether she’d be interested in pursuing such a large collaboration. When she said, “Absolutely,” I asked her to send me a file of some of her favorite pieces. Once I had exhausted them, I went on to her Saatchi site to find more work to feed the creative fire.
Did you ever worry that you might be interpreting the art in a way that Luzajic didn’t intend?
I did not. I think that once art is out there in the world, it has a life of its own. It tells stories to whoever will listen. Ekphrastic art isn’t art criticism. Collaboration isn’t art criticism. I’m not trying to serve as an interpreter of Lorette’s work for a viewer. Instead, I see myself as a co-creator, a super-fan as it were. Fan-fiction continues or fleshes out the stories begun in the seed-text. Ekphrastic art does the same. It listens to the piece and draws out what has been left unspoken. Was it what the artist “intended”? Who knows? The artist didn’t “say” it. I did.
Also, collage art is already a blend of media and voices, if you will. In a way, it is perfectly suited for such a collaboration. My poems just become another layer of the medium itself.
Do you find the process of collaborating energizing or exhausting? Have you always been open to collaboration?
I always find ekphrastic writing energizing, but then again, I find all writing energizing. And I am always eager to collaborate in word and hand projects with a fellow artist. Those are effortless. I have a much harder time with poetry collaboration. That is where it becomes difficult to blend styles, paces, word-choice, modes of expression—for example, if my poems are narrative, but my partner’s poems are imagistic, or if I tend towards Latinate vocabulary, but my partner gravitates towards the Germanic, or if I write slowly, but my partner rattles along, or if I edit in a different way than my partner does.
Do you recommend all poets try ekphrastic poetry? What would you say are the most surprising benefits to working in this form
Yes, for sure. I think ekphrastic poetry is infinitely flexible. It’s a wonderful way to step outside oneself. The artworks contain multitudes. When working ekphrastically, a poet never needs to be stuck inside his/her limited identity. Art calls forth an infinity of personae and voices. I respond equally to realistic and abstract paintings, to ancient and modern art, to two-dimensional and three-dimensional art. Of course, the surprise is the poem that emerged from the art…like the sculpture from the trunk of wood or the block of stone.
Do you have any favorite magazines / literary journals / books you would recommend to writers, particularly other collaborative works?
I never like this question. I love, instead, to stumble upon journals and poets. I love to stand at my desk surrounded by tons of stuff. For example, right now, I have copies of Tin House, The Alaska Quarterly, Lapham’s Quarterly, Field, and Copper Nickel. I have poetry books by Jenna Le, D.G. Geis. I have Proust. I have a book on the Stone Age. Of course, every day, I browse the web and read the paper version of the New York Times as well. I am sent books by poets. I find books and journals in free-boxes. I order some on-line when I fall in love with a poet’s work. I’m a firm believer in purchasing someone’s book when I go to a reading. When I’m done with my journals, I bring them to my masseuse, who shares them with her clients (or I bring them to new free-boxes).
You use forms, but not in a traditional way. How would you describe your use of form in Risk Being / Complicated?
I always want to try something new. In Risk Being / Complicated, I had some tiny box poems inspired by Jon Boisvert’s poetry. I worked with two-line stanzas. I worked with straight prose poems. I worked with golden shovels. I played around with spacing to give poems more air. Really, each collage “asked” for its style of poem.
Recently, I’ve been trying to copy the formal work of Philip Larkin and Jenna Le. They do ingenious things with rhyme. No doubt there are names for the particular forms they are using, but with no formal training, I don’t know them. I’ve also been taken up with adapting the broader interpretation of the sonnet form of both Diane Seuss and Terrence Hayes.
How did working with a pre-determined subject (the collage art) hinder or nurture your writing?
Oh, I could have gone on forever. I still write ekphrastic poems about Lorette’s art. I love how open-ended it is.
Did you have a favorite collage or one that eluded you?
Lorette’s titles can be poems in themselves. I suspect many come from songs, but since I know little about pop or rock, I would never know this. For me, they were generated fresh from her imagination. Here are some of my favorites:
“The Oboe Will Shine Tomorrow”
“You Walk By and I Fall To Pieces”
“Always Crashing the Same Car”
“Color Is My Day-long Obsession, Joy, and Torment”
“I Worked Hard for 25 Years To Be an Overnight Sensation”
“Stargazing on Easter Island”
“I Know It Sounds Strange, She Said, Because It Is a Strange Story”
See what I mean? They’re so evocative. Who couldn’t respond with a poem to those?
The collages I loved best had a lot of pieces—bits of readable handwriting, bits of newspaper stories with enough text to get a toe-hold on their content, captivating images, a panel from a cartoon. All of these juxtaposed into narratives.
Whether any eluded me would be for Lorette to say!
Did you leave room to work on other projects simultaneously or did you focus on writing this book and then move on to other projects?
I always work on many things at once. That is the joy of being a poet. I can write about a news story in the morning, my teaching mid-afternoon, and art, my reading, or something else in the evening.
Any other words of wisdom you’d like to relay to readers/writers?
For writers: The Handmaid’s Tale says it best—“Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum.” Poets will get a shit-ton of rejections. While these can be instructive, often they have little to do with your work. Keep your focus on your work, on your passion, on the thrill of creating. What happens to it all is less of your concern. In Craig Child’s Atlas of a Lost World, about the spread of stone-age humans across North America, these first peoples left site after site full of their knapping cast-offs. Garbage. But to those moderns who stumble upon them, they are magical—indication of the skill and life-way of these early people. Our poems are like that. They offer, windows into our obsessions and delights, proof that we were here, evidence of our effort.
For readers: Reach out to writers when something moves you. You don’t need to buy our books. Hell, no one does! But write us a letter, an email, a message. Let us know we touched you or inspired you in some way.
An Interview with Lorette C. Luzajic
Alexandra Umlas: What surprised you about this collaboration with Devon Balwit?
Lorette C. Luzajic: The whole thing surprised me. Devon Balwit was a poet who came onto my radar with her work in the journal I edit, The Ekphrastic Review ( www.ekphrastic.net). She has an unbelievable gift to approach any subject and turn it into poetry, which is, really, just revealing life as it is. I followed her work greedily and one day she approached me and asked whether I was open to some kind of collaboration, with her writing poems about my mixed media collage paintings. I said I would love that, and moments later she sent me a whole pile of poems, said she was just getting started.
I was blown away that one of my favorite poets was so inspired by my paintings, and curious about them from every angle. I was even more surprised how much she “got” them. My works are open ended, dependent on the viewer for part of their meaning. But Devon got where I was coming from intuitively, putting things into words when I couldn’t and didn’t, and that was exciting and powerful for me.
Were there things about your art you discovered after reading what Balwit wrote?
I didn’t know how much emotional impact they had or that they had such a strong narrative. They are made with a great deal of emotional drama on this end, but I don’t spell that out. There are lots of referential details, lots of snippets of text, lots of hints and clues to trigger ideas and emotions, but it’s always fragmented, and open, rather than finite. I assumed that my audience would be drawn in by the aesthetic and the energy, but that the stories were more convoluted, impressionistic. I’m amazed by how vivid the possibilities were to her, and realized it might be that way for others, too.
In your opinion, is it possible for a writer to misinterpret art if they are working ekphrastically?
Sure, but that depends on what you mean by “misinterpret.”
Of course I’m creating from a certain platform of ideas, from my own stories. But art doesn’t belong just to the artist. We are just the starting point. Everyone who participates in looking brings different experiences and perceptions and perspectives and the original intention now merges with the unique viewpoint of each audience. This is why art never stays put, or stays the same: you can look at a work throughout your life and it changes and deepens as you change. Something that moved you to tears might later strike you as saccharine; something you never appreciated at all suddenly resonates. In a sense, all art is a collaboration between the artist and the viewer.
It also depends on how you define “ekphrastic” writing. Its purpose at some point was to describe a work of art, since reproduced imagery was nonexistent or rare. Today it’s understood that using visual art to inspire writing is about stretching the imagination and growing in how we create and how we see.
Do you find the process of collaborating energizing or exhausting? What advice would you give a writer or artist who wants to try this sort of collaboration?
The nature of my particular kind of art is quite collaborative. I am using the ideas of other creators as my palette; I am engaged with art history, poetry, philosophy, theology, mythology, fiction, film, and music. My work is a cut and paste not just of images but of all of this. The blogger Moray Mair once described my work as an effort “to coalesce the imaginative world.” So I really am in collaboration with others all the time- with E. E. Cummings, the female surrealists in Mexico, with Eminem, Marilyn, old Bible stories and classical stories.
Collaborating in person (or in person virtually) is interesting for the same reasons ekphrastic writing is interesting. You don’t know where it can go, where you will end up, what new questions and possibilities will come to life. Bringing in another’s person's ideas always changes yours. You grow in confidence, too, learning to hold on to your little darlings when it’s important, and when to let them go. You learn to take risks; you realize that you don't have to be hung up on an outcome but can take another road to discover what will transpire. You become better at negotiating, and better at appreciating another artist’s perspective or needs.
Take any opportunity you can to collaborate. Even more important than all that it gives you in terms of unexpected directions and results, it’s fun.
How would you say containing your art within a book changes how it can be viewed? Do you think viewing art in a book is a different experience than doing so in a gallery? How?
My work isn’t more or less real in a gallery. I dissect and dilute and alter images and ideas, and putting them into a book, a postcard, anywhere, it is part of the ubiquity of imagery that I am inspired by. Of course details are less visible in a small reproduction, but we are always overlooking something, getting our attention caught on something else. I am always looking, and I want people to look at my art in all environments. One of my favorite shows was in a laundromat. A brilliant young student/business man thought how people hate doing laundry more than anything, especially city people who have to go the the laundromat. He set up a coffee counter, cleaned the space, painted it bright colors, pumped hip music, and displayed art. It’s an audience who would never have found me in a traditional gallery. I once was part of a show in a massive but rather seedy bar. I was inspired during set up to put some paintings in both the men’s and ladies’ restrooms. The owner was horrified. I wasn't worried that they would be violated. I was the one violating private space, in a way. I explained to him that there are always ads in the bathrooms, and I wanted to put up ads, too, as part of my exhibit.
The other thing about a book is that it gives long term access to the audience. I don’t have the art museums of Chicago in my home, but I have stacks of art books on my coffee tables. In this portable book, people get a whole collection of my paintings and a collection of poetry by Devon, and they can leaf through it and discover it over and over again. I want more books, more laundromats, more cubicles, more poetry.
Do you have a favorite ekphrastic poem? Do you have a favorite poem inRisk Being / Complicated?
I don’t have a favorite ekphrastic poem. I am surrounded by ekphrastic writing, being fortunate to publish The Ekphrastic Reviewmeans reading so many. It’s a privilege. It’s such an exciting genre and tool. The whole world of writing, reading, and looking open up, and you start to see both art and poetry from all kinds of perspectives.
Devon Balwit is a very special poet. I complimented her work in a recent interview, marveling that Devon could write about anything. I quipped something like, “You could tell her write a poem about compost and an extension cord, and she’ll blow you away.” Well, that same day Devon sent me a poem—about compost and an extension cord. It was unbelievable. She is a magician! She mirrors each artwork in a way in her poetry, getting spare, getting wordy. She’s like an archeologist, sifting through the art for small bones, fragments, clues. The poems are like collages, too, or assemblages, collections of curious objects.
I loved them all. I’d say my favorite is “Place Me Like a Seal Over Your Heart.” I love how the poem shrouds the verse in the last words—it’s not easy to write “golden shovel” poems, and this is stunning. I loved that I had to look a word or two up in the dictionary. I loved the emotion of the piece, just heartbreaking.
A version of Alexandra Umlas’ review of Devon Balwit’s Risk Being / Complicated first appeared in The Cultural Weekly in April 2018.