Bruce Bond is the author of eight published books of poetry, most recently The Visible (LSU, 2012), Peal (Etruscan, 2009), and Blind Rain (Finalist, The Poet’s Prize, LSU, 2008). His tetralogy of new books entitled Choir of the Wells will be released from Etruscan Press in 2013. Presently he is a Regents Professor of English at the University of North Texas and Poetry Editor for American Literary Review.
Aron Wiesenfeld had a five year career as a comic book artist; since then, his drawings and paintings have been in five solo shows and has been featured in U.S. publications such as American Art Collector, Hi Fructose, Poets and Artists, Oxford American, Juxtapoz, The Huffington Post, New American Paintings, Drawing Magazine, The Sand Canyon Review, Blue Canvas and others. International publications include Sibila (Spain), Players (Italy), AnormalMag (Chile), Rooms (England), Lamano (Spain), Empty (Austrailia,) Debut (South Korea), Modern Weekly (China,) The Montreal Review (Canada), Doze (Spain), and RubyMag (Argentina). His work has been purchased by prominent collectors such as J.J. Abrams, Drew Carey, Laura Linney, and Nion McEvoy. He is represented by Arcadia Gallery in New York. His website can be found here.
Interview with Bruce Bond
Bruce, I’m assuming that this Ekphrastic project initially came about as a result of your finding Aron’s work and being struck by it, and I’m further assuming that the paintings came first and that you wrote your poems after them. With this said, where and how did you first become aware of Aron’s work, and what about it has so struck you that you felt compelled to write so many poems with them as inspiration?
I first encountered Aron’s work through the gallery Arcadia Fine Arts, where I purchased a couple of his paintings and subsequently followed his career. Then, having just written a book entitled Choir of the Wells, I contacted Aron about possibly using one of his images on my book cover. Aron impressed me as immediately amenable and eager to read the book manuscript that I sent him. Then a few months later, Aron contacted me about possibly doing a book together, at which point I set about writing a series of poems in response to his work. So yes, the paintings came first. I have written many poems based on paintings, but it is a rare painter indeed who does the kind of work that would yield a series of poems from me. Sure, there are continuities of theme in the body of Aron’s work, but it struck me that there is a great variety in terms of the tensions explored and their evocative and fundamental mysteries. Some of the paintings flirt with narrative, but often in a very oblique way that leaves some critical element of that narrative indeterminate. Also the paintings seem to penetrate very deeply into the unconscious and, in their concrete particularity, swell in the mind the way a poem can.
In his introduction to The Other Sky, the collection of these collaborations currently under review at an interested press, Stephen Dunn points out that “[o]ne of the dangers in writing about paintings or photographs is that the poet will try too faithfully to represent what he sees.” He goes on to remark that you never fall into this trap and writes that you have allowed “the painting and the poems [to] exist as related but separate works of art.” I think Dunn’s right about this, and I wonder how consciously (and conscientiously) you strove to make this separation so? Did it reveal itself more in the initial composition process or in the revision process?
This quality of resisting the flatly descriptive impulse has been my general aesthetic preference for as long as I remember. Why do in a poem what a painting or photograph does better? So sure, I suppose I am conscious of not going about writing about anything through merely mimetic detail or some otherwise passive form of representation. The poems that I admire derive their authority through strengths distinctive to poems, strengths that make poems necessary, vital, powerfully conceptual and thus emotional in ways that open up the world of immediate presences. So this push toward a largeness of mediation pretty much initiated the poems from the start. Before beginning to write, I needed to have a sense of what it was in the painting that cut deepest, and the poem could then use its medium’s conceptual strengths to cut a little deeper. At the same time, I wanted the poems to have the ability to stand on their own, so often physical detail relevant to the paintings needed to be re-evoked, albeit in transfigured fashion or via some subordinating rhetoric that moved dynamically through the visual to the unseen—that is, to something more distinctive to poetry.
I also wonder about sustaining such a project over time. How did it affect your writing over the long haul? Did it ever become an effort to complete the project? How long did it take you to write these poems, and did you write other, non-related poems during the time? Has it been hard to abandon such an Ekphrastic project to once again rely upon other prompts? Would you undertake such a project again?
I wrote this book quickly for some reason—I am guessing it took about four months, and it seems I wrote a poem or two every week, sometimes three. It’s not that I particularly admire speed in an author’s process, nor certainly do I value quantity over quality—I’d rather write one strong poem in a year than a hundred OK poems—who wouldn’t. It’s just that I rode a current of excitement that sustained itself through those months via my love of Aron’s work and the kind of momentum that the blank verse couplets offered me. All the while I was aware of the dangers of becoming repetitive, so there were certain strong paintings that I did not write about since they took me to too familiar a place. No doubt, the pre-existence of the images did facilitate the process. I could get up in the morning and stare at images and listen for the distant voices in them. This gave structure to the journey. However I also see the swiftness with which this book came into focus as a tribute to Aron’s work and as evidence of enough affinity there to open up something in me that wanted to be explored. Naturally I revised poems, so it happened several times that I would send a poem to Aron and then follow up with a thread of revisions. I did not revise heavily however. As for writing other kinds of poems at this time, I might have done a little—honestly I do not remember—but I believe I was fairly focused for the duration. Turning to other kinds of poems was not difficult for me, though it might have been at another stage of my life. Actually the turn to other kinds of poems was, when it came, welcome and liberating. I should add that my approach to the Ekphrastic poem is such that it is not so utterly different from meditation on any occasion—that is, I take what I know of the “given” as a language to serve of as yet undetermined direction.
Of the three represented here, “The Delegate’s Daughter” is perhaps the painting most reminiscent of Aron’s best-known paintings; that is, the subject is an adolescent, features elongated, who seems poised at some point along the arc of a journey toward adulthood or some other equally dangerous endpoint. She is clearly independent and self-sufficient, yet I’m struck by how Aron has chosen to clothe her in a dress, suggesting that her feminine side should in no way be considered in doubt. Can you tell us a little about the composition of your accompanying poem? How do move from image to language, and what is hardest about this conjuring?
Part of the affinity between Aron’s work and mine lies in a fascination with figures in transition, characters who embody certain paradoxes or ambiguities of development, so the end of childhood and the beginning of that other thing are huge themes for both of us. Aron’s painting is implicitly poetical in the sense that he likes to find particularly rendered “middle terms” for some fundamental opposition that does not resolve entirely. This quality gives his work much of its disturbing, lovely, and provocative energy. Yes, the delegate’s daughter is a figure of power, and as such was a great foil in the book for so many of the characters who appear endangered, bewildered, transfixed by the mysteries of their own emergent nature. The elongated limbs and dress suggest something of the transitional role of the adolescent asked to fulfill new expectations. The image also suggests something of the wild and imaginative authority of the tomboy there—a remnant of the past perhaps and yet evidence of some possibly enduring resourcefulness. The title of the painting which became the title of the poem opens up levels of reading that haunt the scene with some critical and unseen presence of power, of sponsorship, pride, and expectation. A delegate represents a collective and so must become versed in the nuances of a persona’s performative dimension, its ability to wear the face of others while finding its own poise and autonomy in the process. So the painting calls up a larger tension between the social self and the less self-conscious self of the adventurous child—there will be a continuity between these selves and yet an abiding conflict as well.
I imagine that you and Aron have debriefed each other as to how you may, or may not, have captured precisely what he himself thinks a particular painting is after. Is there one poem that particularly took him by surprise or that he told has nothing at all to do with how he feels the image reveals itself? Or, vice versa, is there a specific poem where you both agree that you nailed it?
Aron would comment briefly on my poems and what I had seen in his paintings after the fact. That happened often. He was extremely supportive throughout the process, and that helped motivate me. Often he said that I had brought to the surface something that he had intuited but that was still searching for a language. That said, I did not concern myself with “nailing it” in terms of articulating some intended meaning or point of the paintings. My task was to pay attention, close attention, and to engage what I saw with a very active interpretive imagination. I am deeply gratified, no doubt, by Aron’s enthusiasm and his recurrent sense that indeed I had understood something that he too understood, but once again, my task was for the poem to come into its own authority, to do its own soul work. So I did not begin poems with the notion that there was an “it” out there exactly. The “it,” if you want to use that term, was the unborn child of collaborative seeing. The cohesion and penetration of the poems evolved in the way all poems of interest to me do, without being too dominated by some ready-made sense of things. There were times actually that the poems were written “against” the paintings—that is, they set out to explore some unrepresented voice in terms of what might be disturbing about the painting. This is most obvious in the poem “Sea of Trees” which is based on Aron’s depiction of a suicide where questions regarding the aestheticization of suffering get raised. As controversial as that painting has been for Aron, the disturbing element offered itself up as something important to my exploration of imaginative empathy, the ways we might embody it, the ways our embodiments in turn get read. If you are interested, you can read that poem in a future issue of The New Guard.
Interview with Aron Wiesenfeld
Aron, I just read a very interesting article on you and your work in Hi-Fructose. I learned there that you began your career as a successful comic book artist, drawing for Marvel, DC and Image. Yet you left that success behind in 2004 to, as the article’s author, J.L. Schnabel suggests, “fulfill [your] own emotional narratives, rather than continuing to manipulate the bodies and settings of stories pre-existing within the collective consciousness of the culture . . . .” You go on to comment that “I feel more freedom and inspiration, and my work is an expression of my personal thoughts and experiences, not an expression of what Wolverine is doing.” But what you are doing here with Bruce, allowing your work to become part of a larger concept with another, do you feel that in some way has removed from your images their full potential? That is, when art lovers see these pieces now, will they find that they have become inextricably linked with the narratives Bruce has projected upon them? Does this make you uneasy?
I'm so honored that Bruce chose my work for this project. Perhaps I would have been concerned about the paintings being reduced if they were in the hands of a more literal or narrative writer, but Bruce didn't answer the questions posed by the paintings, he ran with them. The paintings were starting points for him to go to his own compelling places, with their own mysteries. Because of the instantaneous nature of images, I think viewers will have their own interpretations of the paintings before reading the poems. When considering the two works as a whole, the poems will undoubtedly affect the viewer's reading of the painting, but that's kind of the point. I don't think Bruce’s poems will preclude anyone from taking away their own meaning from the paintings, though they will be richer for reading them.
As I’ve not seen your work up close, I’m wondering about your medium(s). With what materials do you create your art, and why these? How are the qualities you privilege in your work achieved by these particular materials?
I use oil paints. The paintings are built up in many successive layers of semi-transparent paint over weeks. I want to paint things that are compelling in a way that is not possible for me to describe in words, which makes it difficult to plan out in advance, so I need that time and the malleability of the medium. I trust the process; I don't trust my mind to come up with anything interesting. It's an intuitive way of working; it's kind of like trying to feel my way through a pitch black room.
In his introduction to The Other Sky, the tentative title for the proposed book-length collection of these collaborations, Stephen Dunn writes, “Both [you and Bruce Bond] like to be clear about the mysterious.” Does he have that right? What do you think he means by that?
I think Stephen Dunn is referring to that fact that both Bruce and I are precise in the way we use our respective mediums, perfectionistic even. I think it's good to be precise when describing a place no one has seen before, or trying to describe a known place in a new way. One of the characters in Murakami's book 1Q84 says it best: the further outside typical experience the thing being described is, the more descriptive and precise the artist should be.
I think my favorite of these images is “The Wedding Party.” It’s haunting, and it turns this particular rite of passage, I think, into something quite larger. There’s actually a lot I’d like to say about the painting, but I’ll ask you to comment upon how Bruce’s poem after “The Wedding” struck you when you first read it. Did you feel he got it, as far as what you yourself see in the work, or do you more think he got what he saw in it, though that isn’t necessarily what you find in the piece?
There was a feeling of monumentality versus fragility I wanted to convey, and I had my own sense of what was going on, but I love what Bruce wrote. I think a good definition of a successful painting is one that every viewer feels invited to make their own associations. Bruce made these connections between trains, weddings and a life spent together which never occurred to me. My personal narrative was that it is a ruin of a bygone time in which trains were of the past, and the wedding represented a pilot-light of life.
You are greatly missed by fans of your work as a comic artist. Can you see yourself ever going back to dabble a bit in that arena? Perhaps on your own terms with your own comic heroes?
It's nice to be missed. I think it would be a worthwhile exercise to try something in the comic book medium again, but I don't know if I would be able to do the things that are important to me now. Looking at a painting is a meditation. I've never felt that from reading a comic book. Perhaps that would be the challenge.
The Wedding Party
Say a bride laced in her confection
walks a field of snow, camouflaged
as one more particle of snow, no more,
no less, no larger than a flake of fear
in a young girl’s vow. Or in these guests,
scattered to the season, who follow her
across the train yard, across the face
of some enormous tunnel housed the brick—
say they too are tiny, made of sugar,
known only as their powder blue formals,
the tooth-picks of their canes, their bodies
frail against the sweep of the occasion.
Somewhere a swan sculpted out of ice
melts into a bowl of punch, somewhere
the silent roar of darkness as they pass.
OK, I lied. The bride does not pass.
She cannot. She cannot cross this field
because she is the figure in the field,
the still unspoken part of the story
that needs a certain stillness to imagine.
If she cannot step across that rail,
it is because she ornaments the cake
that no one cuts, shares, no one sullies
between the tracks that rise into the cavern.
If you find the eye in you rising now,
do not be concerned. Everyone does it.
Everyone stares into the great black half
moon that asks, are you my bride, my groom.
OK, I lied. The guests are moving now,
if only to suggest a path, a horizon
of celebrants in the crucificial pattern
of the whole. Step away and you see it:
the night that swallows the vertical axis.
You could kneel beneath a moon like this
and ask in turn, are you my paradise.
You could ask the bride, her figure slipped
into the pupils she makes wider still.
She sees no groom there. There is no groom.
That comes later long after the snow
darkens and fades. There is only the well
she dips her pen into, only the story
that is beautiful because it never ends,
never quite begins, because her eyes blur,
wet and heartsick with the ink of joy.
And as the thousand cameras kiss the bride
with light, they say to themselves, gotcha.
They specimen a still place in the body
of the moment, the miniature illusion
cast into the chamber. They fuel the warm
heart’s locomotion of needs and blessings.
The earth is powered by as much, and those
who walk it, we who roll from day to night
to the arms of strangers, two young diesels
rushing toward the headlights of each other.
A miracle we sleep with all that light,
all that snow that drags down the aisle,
lace in trains that grow with each retelling.
But sometimes a bride will come this way, stop,
turn, look down the throat of the unknown.
Sometimes she will smell a hint of smoke.
How calm, this moment, this flake of happiness.
No two alike. How still the possible
happiness to come, the muscular burn
of these dark engines, ready to emerge.
The weak conspire to make a child weak.
They look into the arrow of her eyes
to tell her she is not a boy anymore,
no barefoot killer, no Diana with her
sling shot and dead hare against her hip.
But do you think she listens. Of course she does.
She hears everything they do not say
when they are saying it, every move.
She is a hunter, with a hunter’s cunning
honed by the disadvantage of a child’s
resources. She knows toys are fatal as men.
And gods love it. They love the grit of it.
They invent other gods to nurture it.
They love the toughness of the actual
heart that disciplines its wilderness.
So if she stands on her hilltop, her legs
stiff as pens that ink a nation’s treaties,
likewise a god stands up in her, the way
the pride of men stands inside their daughters.
These days it gets harder and harder to find
a child like that. Pride, like modesty,
is invisible, more of an absence really.
Out here it’s hard to tell them apart.
Diana will tell you, the weak conspire
to make a child a stranger to herself,
more remote, more picturesque and useless,
alone as a god with one believer.
It is good to know a deadly craft,
to talk the early language of the beasts.
How better to outwit the lecher, to turn
hounds against their master in the woods.
The gods we cannot see, they are in there.
They are everywhere we one day will be.
And if the child as she take aim refuses
to pity the creature, it is not because
he is a stranger, but because he’s not,
because she hears in him her own dim pulse,
cradled in the distance, beating fast.
I choose the blind eye—who can resist—
radiant as a glass of milk. I choose
to look because I cannot look away,
because it is the one lantern burning
at this hour, in this version of a boy
whose solitude is the hall I walk,
my footsteps close behind me. The good eye knows.
It takes the dark to let the darkness in.
If you are looking for that boy, look there.
Dip into the ink that bears his name.
There’s a bed inside where a boy turns,
asleep, where he imagines someone like you.
But if you look without understanding
what you look for, you just might return
to the ghost eye floating in its socket,
dead to the boy, and so alive to us.
I choose the ghost because it chooses me.
For it is never knowing what goes on
and on that makes it an invitation
to the dream we cannot bring ourselves
to dream. Imagine what it is to live
with half the world swallowed in the fog.
It is nothing like that. It is nothing.
Like the place you came from you can’t remember.
It’s closer than we know, the little death
that opens up room for the moment, for us.
Once there was a boy named Victor who lived
in half his body. And when he looked at me,
I too was cut in half. And when he didn’t,
he took from me the child he could not see.