Wesley Rothman interview, with Julie Brooks Barbour
How did you first become interested in ekphrastic poetry?
I first became familiar with and interested in ekphrastic poetry because of an elective I took as an undergraduate. It was called "Poetry Speaks to the Painting," and the course description gave a brief introduction to the form (a form of and about which I'd never heard). We read a wide array of individual poems as well as William Carlos Williams's Pictures from Brueghel and Sharon Dolin's Serious Pink, poems riffing on Howard Hodgkins's paintings. Later on, in grad school, I attempted a series of Van Gogh poems, but noticed I couldn't do much more than describe the paintings and what was happening in them with maybe interesting language. My professor sat down with me to talk about them and offered some of the most succinct but essential advice about ekphrastic poetry, and I think about any poems that make reference to or build from something already in the world, a place, a piece of art, a song. She said that the poem should lift off from the painting. And this led me to a realization or practice that I think must happen in ekphrastic poetry. Not only should the poem depart the artwork, it should be able to stand alone. It's nice to have the reference to an artwork, and to even have a collaboration between the poem and the artwork, but the poem should do double duty and survive, or rather flourish in the absence of the original artwork.
Could you talk about your process in writing these poems about Frida Kahlo's work? Were there certain aspects of her work you wanted to focus on more than others?
My process for these Frida Kahlo poems conveniently mimicked what I hope they convey or achieve. The poems don't build with the elements of just one painting or with just one part of Frida's person. "Self-Portrait as Frida Kahlo" is fueled by surreal details from multiple Kahlo paintings as well as surreal details from her life. I don't think the mechanism of a "self-portrait-as..." poem is meant for the speaker to pretend she or he is something or someone else, but for the speaker to actually become that thing or person while retaining her or his own perspective. It's a terrible paradox. But isn't poetry the place for paradoxes? I suppose it's about true empathy. Frida is perhaps most famous for her romance with the self-portrait, for repeatedly painting herself, but the wackiness, the imagery and metaphors in her paintings are what I think drive her work's vibrance. An earring that is a severed hand. A necklace of thorns with a sparrow pendant. A cracked column seen through metal braces and a ripped open body-front. Nails speckling her flesh. An arrow-riddled deer with Frida face. These are the snapshots that for me make Frida visceral and haunting and genius. These are in her paintings and they seem so truly a part of her. Her life's story is equally peppered with surreal relationships and experiences. She was struck by a street car in her teens, an incident that caused physical pain and complications for the rest of her life. She was married to and deeply loved Diego Rivera, a marvelous artist, but endured his infidelity and other challenges. There is a story, a myth that during her cremation the incinerator doors opened and her body jolted upright, hair on fire as she grinned. There's also a painting credited to Frida by some, "The Last Supper," that is a collage of details from many of her most famous works—this is where the poem began. These last two details, the cremation myth and the collage are what fascinate me most. They enhance Frida's mystique. They are mostly believable, and they imagine Frida as deified in a way. I don't know that my poems are trying to deify her. Maybe they are. But my process was all about imagining Frida, becoming her, and adding to her still fiery liveliness, almost sixty years after her death.
You mention that Kahlo endured physical pain and complications in her life, which strikes me since these poems speak directly from a speaker who inhabits a woman's body. And they do it very well. Could you talk about the experience of writing from a woman's perspective as a male poet?
Thank you! That's a thrill to know. There's quite a bit packed into this one, I think. As "Self-Portrait as Frida Kahlo" developed, I remember another poet had read it and said it didn't quite sound like Frida, which I was grateful to know but so wanted it to be her. I think that's the first element here: hearing or encapsulating the speaker's voice. So often in poems speakers don't come with a voice expectation, but of course a persona poem in Frida's voice, or in the voice of anyone with a fairly widespread reputation is going to face this challenge. Different readers will have different expectations, consciously or subconsciously, especially with someone like Frida whose voice isn't so much dependent on the sound or recordings, but on the personality, character, and tone that viewers have of her visual work, and perhaps of her aphorisms or crystallized phrases.
I hunted for audio with no success. But the voice I know of Frida is complex: gracefully innovative, fluid, spunky, harsh and bitter at times, boldly colorful, strikingly honest.
Most of the poems I've written, definitely these, have been an attempt to understand the speaker. I think this fuels me in many pursuits, and I think it's a fundamental function or possibility for poetry. Poems are often a place to not understand or know how an experience feels, how it steers a person. Part of my pull to Frida is this not knowing. I'm not a woman. I'll never truly know so much about being a woman. But the space of a poem allows me to try. And fail. Or get closer than I had been before. As these poems came together, I wanted to become Frida somehow, and so much of Frida's life was shaped by her relationship with her body, her lifelong physical struggle as a result of being struck by a streetcar, including her inability to bear children. From attempting to empathize with her experiences, her various and immense pains, and "hearing" her voice from paintings and photographs and quotations, I wrote how I think she would write a poem. So maybe they're more her poems than mine.
The final poem in this sequence speaks from the perspective of someone viewing Kahlo's paintings in a gallery and being transfixed by the images in her work. I'm very interested in your movement from poems in the artist's voice to a poem that reacts to her work, while still maintaining a consistent theme. Could you talk a little about this sequence?
I wanted to write Frida's poems; however, I couldn't help but still be the viewer, someone tangled up in her work. I think the cohesion of this sequence comes from her imagery, her color and metaphor. Her voice is sharp and vivid and energetic, in her paintings and in the way she dressed and in the ways she spoke about life and art. The poems in her voice mushroom up from this. And as the viewer, I can't help but balloon in that atomic blast. I think there's also a doubleness happening in all of these poems, a doubleness that comes with ekphrastic poetry, or poetry that collaborates/cooperates/interacts with other art forms. This depends on the empathic experience I spoke about. As the poet, even in Frida's voice, I am still interpreting, still warping what would actually be her poem. As the viewer I'm not alone; my voice is pushed and wrestled with by Frida's voice, her aural voice and her paintings. So I suppose thinking about these poems and the series on a continuum might be useful. Some poems lean toward the Frida end while others lean toward my end, but never one extreme or the other, no matter how hard I try to muscle her out, or more likely, no matter how hard she tries to muscle me out.
The Last Supper
The gang’s all here. Mid-desert sun and its stripped away
orange peel, the undressing of dusk.
Mother Earth’s mother
and her daughter, and her granddaughter, me,
and my nine lives.
Diego cries, fat, in my arms, unblemished, pure
malice. My surrogate mother,
me, pours her milk,
and my youth masquerades as blue-suit-man, crushed velvet,
bright ruby bosom, and ex utero.
It’s been scat before,
skeletal me can’t help but grin, chuckle, clatter her joints
at a feast this verdant.
Hunted me welcomes
arrows, curls of my hair caught in antlers. The goldenrod
lays a carpet, rolls out the royal spread mi dia de la vida.
Tacked to the feast, braced by columns
stoic—lined by sweet skulls and shots of flame,
there is only this: dark strands,
a face for holding, this lived-through
frame covered with red muscle, two nipples, a broken spine.
I wanted the ceiling gold, the walls blue, and my table
Other suppers leave their place in the past,
join our table para la risa de los muertos.
Islands of myself burn down in the sea. When I’ve left
myself behind, tear at me,
roast me on a spit,
Self-Portrait as Frida Kahlo
I was born a bitch, a ribbon
around a bomb—
There’s no ticking with me, no time,
just BOOM! I’ve spent too much time lying down.
There goes the ribbon to thread.
There goes the bomb
to sky, taking all of us along.
Everything grows upward, hungry
for heat, for light, for rawness. Or
grows away from the beginning, out
from the center, escaping. Think of children,
vines, faith, an echo. All nomads. Echo,
my dear, sing to me. Echo, my dear,
sing to me. Now lose yourself to the jungle,
its creatures and soil. I am Narcissus, son
of Cephisus, great commander of sacrifice.
Prove your devotion! Take a hit
from the bus, take a blow
as your life, married to a mural man,
playboy and vaquero, a real buckaroo. Diego
broke me better than the bus. My fractured column
towers. Can’t you see when I pull back
my robe, the skin beneath, buckles
wrapping my halves into one? It’s a great and Roman.
Bashed to bits, I’ve painted it back
together. I’m a fault line in the desert
rumbling and scattering everyone.
When you stand beneath the desert stars
the same fire tumbles in me, warming
the earth, the stones, and lizards.
I’m the border down the middle
de Las Californias, joining and splitting
open the cacti to drink their lifeblood, spilling
wreckage over the hills—carnage
wasting away in rippled heat. The industry
of the land, of this hospital I know
more intimately than my marriage
bed, the pelvis of the fertile jungle, some fetus
I’ll never bear: all flow
from me, are tethered to my forehead,
my chest cavity, my narrow hips, so narrow.
Arteries pump and flood the holes
the arrows made. The shots Diego fired, tequila-
lovers loosed. I am happily prey. I am turned out
like pockets, everything in me strung
over a ladder pinched by the sun
and moon, climbing up up and away
from the body that will burn, that I want
burned. Burn it when I die. Just burn
it. All the chicken, fish, and pigs
I ate. All the sausage and pelts
I made. The sugar skull. The bright
festival skull of my father. Turn out
my stomach lining and burn it. Torch
the wilted iris. I have nailed myself
together, painted my breasts with tears, slapped away
the hand of ventricles groping for my throat. Watch me burn.
Watch me flap my smoky wings.
My frocks all hang, green
and gold feathers, as I float
through my blue house. There’s something on my chest
you must see, my blouse
always low-cut, sterile, or missing. The jungle tangled
with red vines and green
reaches to repossess every human being,
hug it, squeeze it, swallow its last breath. Give me my hair clip
butterflies, my sparrow pendant,
a severed hand
earring, and a bower of leaves,
great big banana leaves slick
and durable. Give me some Patrón and a man
or a woman, as long as they know
how to lay one on me like a satin ribbon,
an arrow slice across the lips, a choker
of thorns and fingers. That was me grinning,
hair flying on fire—mi corona—before
I returned to dust. It wasn’t the hot wind
jolting my body up.
Dear Mythmaker, Dreamcatcher, Dear Ms. Kahlo,
Lethal, your metaphors, cracked open
like the desert floor, fissured and gaping
for a kinked column begging to collapse,
menace me from the gallery every single
time. Spun from a morphine trip, roots
and leaf shoots crawl from paint cracks,
every yelp you kept from winding
into the world. The flesh you brush.
How the hospital bed leans. An easel
lowers canvas from the sky, an angel
bending to kiss you then teasing
your ghost. Beside yourself, playing
with your own fingers, the clamp
chokes your fat artery, all your innards
surround their temple, catch the dreams
streaming. Snare the embryo of past,
fetus cut loose at your breaking. Leap
through the arrows’ trajectory. Spread
the cracks of history with Ra’s staff,
a fireball worshipped by the living
and the dead. Temples crumble
for earth’s shiver. Not even you can paint
thunder. But it echoes in me
when your eyebrow strikes, shatters
the air of a museum, the oxygen
bubbling through everyone’s blood,
pumping us forward and leaving us gassed
every time the body opens its story.