Qué te he dado, lo sé. Qué has recibido, no lo sé.
By Deb A.
Eminent Scottish poet Don Paterson put his rigorous intellect, rollicking sense of humour and rolling accent to good use last summer when he examined the many ways in which poetry can be misunderstood. He moves with ease through poetry's offer of interpretive freedom and the potential implications for the Lost Reader, which include codal incompetence, cryptosemia, parasemia, and oversignifying. Watch as he brings Antonio Porchia, Shakespeare, Billy Collins, a dog called Benji and Robert Frost along for the ride.
Presented at HowTheLightGetsIn 2013; held by the Institute of Art and Ideas.
By Deb A.
1997 was a good year for storytelling in North America.
Delgamuukw v. British Columbia was brought to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1997, six years after the Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled that the intricate oral histories performed by Gitksan and Wet'suwet'en chiefs did not constitute legal proof that the tribes had a right to their land. The highest court in the nation disagreed, ruling that "equal footing" must be given to written and oral traditions.
That same year, a not-for-profit organisation focused on the art of storytelling came to life in New York. The Moth brings enthusiastic newbies and practiced raconteurs alike onstage to tell true, personal tales. Storytellers are not permitted notes – that thin slip of paper could just as easily be a concrete wall, given the way it hinders intimacy with an audience, and the oral tradition depends on establishing a connection.
For this, storytellers must be so familiar with their tales that they can relate them slightly differently each time; the silhouettes of their narratives are etched somewhere deep within their psyches. Although storytellers may allow details to surface, sink, or even change depending on the moods of performers and audiences, the essence is always authentic.
There is a special ingredient that makes the oral tradition so powerful, despite the potential impermanence of a story that has not been recorded for posterity (although, in a nod to the realities of the age, The Moth offers audio files online and has even published a book): as The Moth explains, "your eloquent musings... look pretty on the page but unless you can make them gripping and set up stakes, they won't work... ."
Storytellers narrate tales in which they face a real and imminent possibility of losing or gaining something crucial to their very identities. For those gracing stages across the United States, the stakes are high: at the time of writing, the most popular story on The Moth's website is Cindy Chupack's wryly funny Till Death or Homosexuality Do Us Part, a story about her husband questioning his sexuality. For the chiefs who told their tales to the Supreme Court, those stakes accumulated over generations and became their claim to an ancestral home. Storytellers are driven to share the events that have shaped their identities, in a way that resonates with the sum of human experience. Thanks in part to modern takes on an ancient way of life, the oral tradition continues to breathe fire into personal histories, transforming them into universal ones.
By Deb A.
With a gentle wit and a flair for insight, Emily Fleisher plays with boundaries and narratives to excavate the meaning that we build into domestic objects over time. Her pieces, "Foundling" and "Timber!!!", were featured in the inaugural edition of Agave Magazine. We recently spoke with Emily about impossible narratives, monotone suburbia, and the Zen-like properties of glitter.
AGAVE: What do you believe is the power inherent in an unviable narrative?
EMILY FLEISHER: I actually got to experience an unviable narrative first-hand. When I was in grad school I learned the hard way not to get on an airplane if you're congested, and I got a pretty respectable case of vertigo that lasted for a few months. It drastically affected my sense of perception and informed the way that I proceeded to make things. For the first few days, I had no sense of where my body was in space. It was nearly impossible to use a drill, because I couldn't reconcile the space between the drill and the screw. It was very odd to exist within an environment that didn't comply with my expectations.
Beyond that experience, I'm always waiting for my environment to surprise me. The pieces that I'm currently trying to resolve are based on these interruptions in my daily life. Playing with scale, space and perspective are the methods by which I approach making things.
How do you play with scale?
Playing with scale is one not-so-subtle way of manipulating a familiar object in order to hone in on our exact relationship with it. It's a way to play with the expectations of our comfortable surroundings. I made "Trails Off Too Soon" to look like the most generic of landscape paintings that somehow escaped from its frame. It would be the most unspectacular painting, but it's something that I'm sure exists inside many of the homes around mine. I tried to communicate the idea of the endless landscape, sort of the inverse of endless suburbia.
When I look at landscape paintings I always feel like there's much more to the image. The frame dictates a specific boundary, and we're not privy to what lies beyond. I feel like images held within a frame are withholding something. But there's a power inherent in that act of withholding. "Trails Off Too Soon" is framed, but you get the impression that what lies beyond is just more of the same.
Where do your ideas come from? Do your suburban surroundings offer much in the way of inspiration?
Currently, I find abundant inspiration in my very uninspiring environment. A few years ago I moved to the suburbs – a subdivision from the '80s in San Antonio. We're surrounded by strip malls, fast food restaurants, and big box retailers. My homeowner association approves the house colours so the mostly brick and stone houses are accented in a mix of light tan, a slightly darker shade of tan, and brown. When we bought our house, the previous owners put a fresh coat of light tan paint on every wall and put down new light brown carpeting. Lawns are green, but we and some others refuse to water so it reverts to brown dirt during the Texas summers. It probably seems as if I don't like my neighbourhood, but I actually really do. It's just an odd way of existing compared to my previous more urban environments.
It took me a little while to settle in here and as I did, I became hypersensitive to the things that are atypical in the rather bleak suburban landscape. There are only a few roads that lead out of the neighbourhood and I travel them every day, so most of the time I barely notice what I'm driving through. But one day I came to one of the uninspiring intersections featuring our ubiquitous palette of browns and tans, grey concrete dividers, and new black asphalt, and some kid's farm-themed school project was scattered across the road: pink pigs, a battered red barn, and hundreds of other brightly coloured bits and pieces. It was such a striking juxtaposition of elements and colour, and was one of the many times I had to jump out of the car to take a picture. These are the types of interruptions that shock me out of the monotony and provide the impetus for my work.
Do the found objects you use fit into a preexisting idea, or do they inspire a piece?
I think I've only used about four found objects in my work. "Foundling" was one of the rare times when I came across an object and instantly thought of a method of resolving it. Most recently I had an idea that necessitated a book – and I quickly realised that it had to be a real one. So I ended up with the counterproductive and rather irritating task of trying to find the correct book. I think it resolved well enough, but that process really doesn't work for me.
"Foundling" is one of several of your works that cue the viewer to consider our relationship to our food. Does this stem from a personal conviction of yours?
Food should play a featuring role in everyone's personal conviction. It's a part of daily routine, but it's also tied to time and memory. One of my most vivid childhood memories is watching my mother add milk to her coffee in diners and being held fixated by the two conflicting colours as they danced together and eventually met at a median value. Coffee has been an integral part of my own day since I worked at Starbucks as a teenager. At night I'm usually excited to go to sleep so I can wake up and make coffee.
Watching butter melt into toast always captivated me as well. I made a small piece called "Melty" a number of years ago where the butter melted and left a glitter trail. Glitter, as a material, has a similar cosmic Zen quality where you can lose yourself in space and time. Recently, at my son's preschool, they introduced us to their "Zen jar", which is a jar filled with water and glitter. When one of the kids gets a bit too riled up, instead of just giving them a time out, they sit them down with the jar, shake it up, and have them stare at it until all the glitter settles at the bottom. They immediately zone out and become freakishly still, meditative little beings.
The next issue of Agave Magazine will be published in February 2014. To receive a copy delivered directly to your inbox, subscribe here.
By Deb A.
Playfully profound former United States Poet Laureate Billy Collins is making the rounds to promote his new book, Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems. Which means, among other things, that "two-term Poet Laureate of the United States" and variations thereof have been sprinkled liberally throughout reviews, promotional material and interviews. The title sounds impressive, and indeed it is, but for many, the role is a complete mystery.
The Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress "serves as the official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans," according to the Library of Congress, which appoints a preeminent poet to the position each year. The Poet Laureate is not required to commemorate major events (although Billy Collins memorialized the victims of 9/11 in The Names); instead, he or she is tasked with spending a September-to-May term nudging the American public toward a greater appreciation of poetry. The honour includes a $35,000 stipend.
Alongside three concrete tasks —giving a reading or presentation at the inauguration and closing of his or her term, and selecting and introducing the two annual Witter Bynner Fellows — Poets Laureate may choose to pursue a special initiative or project. These vary according the the Poet Laureate's own interests and ideas; for instance:
Embedding poetry into a nation's consciousness is a formidable challenge that speaks to the very heart of a populace: as Charles Simic (2007-2008) assures us, "there's nothing more interesting or hopeful about America than its poetry."
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