I never dream in black and white, so this would not be an image pulled out of one of my dreams, but I have definitely dreamed scenes that felt like this. Doesn’t it feel like this hallway is filled with 10,000 little kids in paper bunny ears, when it was probably more like 25? And that they are doing something more mystical than rolling Easter Eggs down a school hallway? And the only reason it feels that way because the lighting is murky and the photograph is damaged. It is a totally messed-up photo, but I can’t stop looking at it, even though it feels both mundane and mildly disturbing. This, ladies and gentleman, is evidence to the power of a badly archived vernacular photo!
In a little less than an hour, I’ll make the (insanely short) drive over to Firecracker Press, or rather Central Print, their nonprofit educational arm. I signed up for a letterpress class, and yes, it’s going to be really rudimentary. I have my hair pulled back in a ponytail, so that it doesn’t get caught in the press, and I’m wearing my grubbiest jeans. Tonight, we bring a picture of our favorite leaf – I don’t really have a favorite leaf, but one of my favorite trees is Mimosa pudica. If I had to pick a part of the plant I was most fond of, I’d pick the flowers, which are fuzzy and weird and bright pink, and smell like perfume and ginger ale. But the leaves are interesting, too – mimosa’s also known as sleepy plant or sensitive plant because the leaves shutter together when you touch them (they do the same thing when it gets dark). They are also ferny and prehistoric-looking, really beautiful, as you can see:
I’ve probably set myself up for failure by picking something complicated with lots of tiny fronds instead of, say, a catalpa leaf, which is just shaped like an upside-down heart. We’ll see if what I end up with looks less like a leaf and more like one big ink smudge, like a Rorschach card.
So here is my very first attempt at a woodblock (well, it’s a linoleum print; easier to carve than wood, so I got off easy). Yeah, I tackled something too complicated for a beginner. I was really panicking as we were all carving, because I couldn’t make the tools do quite what I wanted them to do. I didn’t get the background clean enough, ask there is a lot of what printmakers refer to as “noise.” Matty, our wonderful teacher, called this “rustic,” which maybe is a nice way to say “primitive,” but I feel happy that this actually turned out looking like something because I wasn’t so sure it would. I was trying to work from a drawing I’d brought, and got really frustrated because it didn’t look exactly like my source image. Then I realized I just had to trust my hand, and things went a bit more smoothly. I didn’t really like my final drawing, and so ended up almost re-drawing the image with the tools. Not ideal. I kind of lost my way, and I also wasn’t sure how my marks would translate to the final print. I have to say, though, as a left-handed person who mostly writes and hasn’t done any printmaking at all, I am very happy that my final prints did not look like schmutzy Rorschach bats. This looks more like a thistle or an Armistice poppy than a mimosa branch, but it looks like something, and a botanical something, too! So, I’m happy. My homework now is to track down linoleum blocks, carving tools, and to think up a big project and a little project. Getting the stuff will be easy. Trying to figure out what I want to do with those tools will not be easy…
In October, we moved into a house. It’s the first time I’ve ever had my name on a mortgage. This house is modest by average American standards – 1800 square feet – but it feels huge, because we’ve been living in a 625-sf apartment for the last two years. I guess I’m impressed that we managed, as two adult humans, to live in such a small space, but I’m relieved to have a bit more room to float around in. I wrote my last chapbook at the kitchen table; it doubled as my work desk. Though I got a running start on it in our apartment prior to that, which was in O’Fallon Park, and at 1,000 s.f., it was large enough to allow for two office spaces. This is me, figuring out where to hang stuff in that room:
As you can see, the walls were very red. It was one of those half-rooms you see at the top of the stairs in St. Louis two-family flats, pretty much just space for my desk and a chair. There was also a very, very small closet, which I outfitted with shelves and put my books inside it. For the six or so months we were there, I was insanely productive. The neighborhood leaked into my poems, high, low, and sideways; and I think maybe the poems I wrote during that period sound like they were written in a small, red room.
So, this is my new office; the opposite, really. It’s not huge, but the ceilings are high and the walls are painted a very calm, meditative blue.
It’s the same desk that lived in the red room. And some of the ephemera over the desk is from that era, too; it survived two years in storage in a friend’s rehab. There’s also a closet, but one I can put spare clothes and art supplies in, because there is room for an actual bookcase.
This came with the house. It’s home to all of my poetry books now, including a bunch that I had not seen for two years, because they were taped inside plastic tubs and squirreled away in the back room of a third-story house (a room that had no windows, I might add…it’s a rehab, after all).
This is the wall behind my desk; the poster is by artist and herbalist Michael Ford, in memory of herbalist Juliette de Baïracli Levy, who is one of my heroes. On the little glass shelf over Juliette, there are three terra cotta pots, which I seeded today with valerian, white evening primrose, and calendula.
My tiny red office was a bit like an oven. (And yes, it was even hot like an oven – we were there in 2012, the summer that temps hovered around 107 for more than a week, and didn’t get much cooler from there.) This new space feels like what my imagination wants a cloud chamber or star chamber to be, like a room where clouds or stars park themselves for a bit. (Those two things, in actuality, are not places one would want to spend any time in at all.) The first week this room became functional, I turned out three poems (not bad ones, either, though they need more revision for sure). But this space seems to be more conducive to stories. Since I’ve moved in, I’ve found a growing chorus of characters appearing in my head; they seem to have no intention of leaving me alone. Apparently this calm, blue workspace is meant to be the place where I sit and transcribe what they tell me.
On Tuesday, I’m starting a class at Firecracker Press, so my hope is that I can figure out how to design and print covers in order to put out those stories as a series of linked, individual chapbooks. Sort of like how Dickens used to do it, in serial form, or like the old Penny Dreadfuls. I’ve even been looking around for tabletop platen presses on Ebay, but I need to learn how to use one first. And in the spirit of Juliette Levy I guess, I’ve been researching how to make ink out of shaggy mane mushrooms, pokeberries, and black walnuts. Those messy ink-making operations will have to take place in another room entirely…or maybe even out on the back porch.
The title of this post was stolen from a spammer in my comments. Which are the only kinds of comments I get. (Oh well.) I kind of like this phrase. It doesn’t mean much, but it does remind me, in a tangential way, of my latest dive down the rabbit warren: archivists who write about recipes and clothes. Speaking of: the photograph above is of my “peacock dress,” which just came back from the dry cleaners. (Eco-friendly dry cleaners. Proof of that on the paper slip on the hanger.)
I’ve had this dress since I was 14. My aunties gave it to me for Christmas, but I’d obsessed over it when it hung on an iron pipe rack in a low-lit, spartan vintage clothes store in downtown Salt Lake City. I saved for months to buy it, but then the guy who ran the shop realized that it had been designed by the couturier who made Elizabeth Taylor’s clothes, and hiked up the price accordingly. And that made it forever out of my price range as a 14-year-old. My aunties all had to pool their money to buy it for me – and these were auntie with day jobs. It’s too fragile to wear anymore, because I wore the hell out of it in high school and college, and a friend of mine with a bit more junk in the trunk borrowed it and blew out the lining in the derriere area. So now it’s an archival dress, but I keep it because it reminds me of being 14 and 15 and using it as my emotional flak jacket. When I wore this dress along with some red lipstick and black mascara, I could go into any social situation without my shyness eating me alive. Because if I happened to be in jeans and a frumpy sweater, sometimes that’s what happened. Anything that made me more self-conscious, made me embarrassed, just made my already pronounced introversion/shyness that much worse. So my peacock dress reminds me that as an adult, even though I have less time to think about clothes, that my psyche suffers when I have a lousy outer persona. When I’ve gotten lazy and defaulted to colorless-shapeless-dull-not-fitting-right, I sometimes find myself back to being that stuttering, embarrassed 15-year-old girl. Having your Joan of Arc suit is important, even if it’s a three-tiered peacock dress rather than damask steel armor.
(By the way, I have to stop for a moment to explain the several weeks of silence here – between the events in Ferguson, buying a house and moving, and an increase in my workload, blogging was just not possible. So that’s that. Moving on…)
Okay. Onto archives, clothes, food. Robyn Schiff’s glorious book, Worth, is one of my favorite poetry collections, but also one of my favorite books about fashion. Here’s a blurb that describes it:
“These strong, multilayered poems test the transformative powers of dressmakers, jewelers, actors, and Darwin’s darkest finches as they adapt to a changing world where the same train hurtles past them toward marketplace and death camp both. Throughout, many of the poems use inherited forms to tell their stories, but the inheritance here comes down damaged and threadbare—yet full of power.
In Worth Robyn Schiff inquires about making, buying, selling, and stealing in the material world, the natural landscape, and the human soul. Opening with the renowned couture house of Charles Frederick Worth, the father of high fashion— “The dress was so big, / one’s hand is useless to take glass from table; / the skirt approaches while the hand is yet distanced” —and ending with the House of De Beers and a diamond thief named Adam Worth— “You’ll know me by my approach / I’m coming on foot with a diamond in my mouth” —Schiff moves from Cartier and Tiffany to the Shedd Aquarium, from Marie Antoinette to the Civil War, from Mary Pickford to Marilyn Monroe.”
The two blogs I’ve been reading and loving to pieces lately, Cooking in the Archives and Two Nerdy History Girls, have that same sort of sparkle and inventiveness when it come to writing about fashion (and food). I’m also a huge fan of Reay Tannahill’s Food in History, in part because she wasn’t a “foodie” – I’ve never been able to stand that word, for one thing, and another thing, fetishizing food is really boring to me; I’d rather know why people cooked what they cooked, how it reflects how they lived, what they believed, etc. Same goes for clothes. I find them interesting and useful, but I’ll never be on a handbag waiting list. It’s an interesting thing to note that all these women are (or in Tannahill’s case, were) academics who also write historical fiction. They see and write about their topics through the lens of the imagination, versus dry facts.
The women behind Cooking in the Archives, Alyssa Connell and Marissa Nicosia, pull recipes (or “receipts,” as they used to be known) from the archives at UPenn. They work from codices, and I love the thought of updating a receipt from a codex into a modern-day recipe on a blog. Also, at least to my eye/ear, the texts they are working with read like poems. Here’s a recent example:
To make a tarte of green pease
Take green peas & seeth them tender
then poure them out into a cullender, season
them with safron, salt & sweet butter
& sugar, then close him then bake itt
almost an houre, then draw itt forth
& ice itt, putt in a litle wergice; & shake
itt well, then scrape on sugar & serve itt.
Apparently “wergice,” is “verjuice,” an acidic grape vinegar concoction; they substituted lemon. They’ve also made fish tarts (not great, from all reports), and lemonade, prepared from another fairly lyrical receipt/recipe:
To Make Lemonade.
Boil One Quart of Spring Water, let it stand ’till it is Milk Warm. Pare five clear Lemons very thin and put the parings in the warm water. Let it stand all Night, the next Morning strain off the peel thro’ a fine Lawn Sieve, Squeeze the Juice of the five Lemons. Strain it and put it in the Water, put in Eleven Ounces of double Refin’d Sugar, One Spoonfull of Orange flower water. Mix these well together, it will be fit for use.
And apparently this one’s a winner on the taste front as well.
One of the things I love best about Two Nerdy History Girls is that they challenge what we think we know about historical dress. That corsets made women faint (wrong); that big hair in the 17th century was not hygienic (not anymore true than it is now!); and that there were only two dresses in the average 18th century woman’s closet. (I guess, because we’re in thrall to that myth of infinite progress, we have to view the generations before us as stupider, dirtier, grosser, and more miserable. Yes, their life expectancy was a bit shorter, though often the way most Americans last 5 to 10 years of their lives often isn’t much an improvement on being dead, so…)
My favorite posts are the offbeat ones, like this one about a dress sewn from seaweed-patterned calico at the RISD Museum, the multiple connotations of “The French Lady,” in 18th-century England, and “The Victorian Hair-Guard.” Bradford & Chase have even inspired me to pull out these patterns, which I bought online, gosh, only about six years ago from the Vintage Pattern Lending Library. I suspect I will have to get my sister’s help with the opera cape (Alison sewed her own wedding dress this summer – a reproduction of a 1920s drop-waist with lots of embellishment and detail) but I’ll try the fabric flowers myself. If they turn out to look like anything at all, I plan to tack them to my winter coat. Not sure I can expect them to function as full-fledged magic garment like my peacock dress, but perhaps they can be as a sort of protective talisman; or just a reminder that even if I can’t sew an opera cape, I am competent enough to sew flowers.
I could post for days about Public Domain Review. Yes, I’m a photo and art database nerd, and actually enjoy the treasure-hunting process of looking at thousands of tiny thumbnails, but that drives most people crazy. Like Open Culture, PDR’s editors do the digging for you, and post the best, most striking stuff from a number of really terrific collections in the public domain, including images, sounds, and film. PDR’s essays about the meaning of specific paintings, photos, films or pieces of music are beyond excellent, too. They are poetic in that they “tell it slant,” like Emily encouraged us to do, but they’re very practical in that they also explain cultural contexts that have disappeared over time (these recent posts on laughing gas and 17th century English coffee houses are great examples of that).
This Windsor McKay sketch for an animated movie about centaurs is magical:
And this post about the challenges of painting fireworks is another good one.
One of my favorite posts, though, is about Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater’s 1901 book, Thought-Forms. PDR’s essay, “Victorian Occultism and the Art of Synaesthesia,” invokes Yeats, who was a member of the Theosophical Society with Besant and Leadbeter, and mentions Yeats’ movement to champion the soul over the intellect. It also traces this kind of work to Modernism, which is fascinating, and rings true. I also agree with the author’s opinion that “color is the biggest takeaway from Thought-Forms. While the prose is baroque, clumsy and hard to follow, the visuals that accompany it are simply enchanting, suffused with mellow blues, misty purples, and brilliant ochres and oranges.”
Here are few of my favorites (“The music of Mendelssohn,” above, is in that category as well):
Roy Kasten played this last Wednesday morning, chased with some Jens Lenkman. It’s a great little song, and after I heard it on KDHX, I ran to go look it up on Spotify. The video isn’t what I was expecting (a tennis match, umpired by a Bob Dylan lookalike) but it’s charming. I think this song is about the epiphany that the mundane isn’t all bad, but as an asthma sufferer, I can also say it’s the most accurate description of an asthma attack I’ve ever heard. (Or maybe Courtney Barnett just has existential asthma attacks like I do?)
This is just a plain old-fashioned list; images, links, and topics I am thinking about this week, cut and pasted in no particular order.
Self-Care for Poets, Part 1 (How To Be a Better Sacred Monster)
Poetry mag’s Harriet blog pointed to this last week; it’s a guest post for Drunken Boat, written by Bay Area poet Lindsey Boldt. She does give advice on diet (more on that in a moment) but It’s actually about how to safely go into trance. All poets (actually, I’d say all artists) do this when they work, whether they know it or not. It’s not exactly the same thing as mediation. It’s about dissolving the membrane between the unconscious and the ego. Carl Jung stated that in artists, the wall between those two things is much more permeable than in non-artists. When I read studies about artists and poets being more prone to alcoholism and mental illness, I always think about this – my take is that what makes artists more vulnerable is not so much genetic inheritance, but failing to take care when handling pure archetypal content straight from the unconscious, which is a bit like handling uranium ore with one’s bare hands. Because we are in such a material, reason-driven culture, we do not pay proper due to the real power of language and imagination. We have zero rituals around working with the material of the unconscious, as older cultures did (see the Oracle at Delphi, above). But the imagination, and just pure images, are POWERFUL. I think this is why so many artists and writers have to concoct rituals around their practice – it’s like their HazMat suit, the thing that keeps their psyche safe when they are working, and bombarded with the strong rays of pure imagination. Any fiction writer will tell you that when they are in the middle of a novel, the characters take on a life of their own. Any poet will tell you that some lines just feel like they were beamed into the skull. That’s working with the unconscious. I was happy to see Boldt acknowledge that. And much of her advice is practical: when you are drifting around on the ceiling, eat something! There is no better cure for drifting-away soul than a big, sloppy, peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Oh, how I love thee, Open Culture! And jeez, I love Dante with a big arrow-pierced heart, for all of my days. How big was my swoon over this? It was like this:
If you look at the hi-res versions of these images from the British Library, you will see why. As Open Culture notes, “The names Priamo della Quercia and Giovanni di Paolo may mean relatively little to you right now, but they’ll mean much more once you’ve taken a look at the illustrations featured here and at The World of Dante, which come from an illuminated manuscript of the Divine Comedy at the British Library known as Yates Thompson 36.” Other artists – Dore, Blake, Dali – have done some amazing interpretations of the Divine Comedy. (I think Blake is my favorite, followed by Dore.) But these are true to Dante’s poem, true to the time period, and just stunningly beautiful – and you can view them in super hi-res.
So, I know about Bang on a Can, but I’ve never investigated the work of David Lang (who is a BoaC member). Today one of my writers did a piece on the Mizzou New Music Festival; they’re hosting two terrific world-class composers, Nico Muhly and Zhou Long. Muhly collaborates quite a bit, including with rock/indie folks and David Lang too, and when I typed Muhly into the Spotify search box, Lang’s Death Speaks popped up. The vocalist on these tracks is Shana Worden of My Brightest Diamond. She is amazing – I once saw her open for Devotcha. I never get excited about opening acts, but I thought, “Bloody hell! Who is this human?” She’s pretty amazing. This whole record is a remarkable piece of work, though apparently the album to hear is Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion, which I’ll be checking out tout suite.