The wheel of the year turns again. Back to school for Shane, end of school for me: I finished my coursework for Year Two in the Temple of Witchcraft Mystery School. Now that I’m not receiving long assignments every month, I hope to spend more time playing with my collage art materials and exploring how to integrate poetry into visual media.
Poet L.I. Henley elegantly marries these genres at her blog Paper Dolls and Books. She showcases beautiful paper creations she’s made in response to contemporary poetry books like Rajiv Mohabir’s The Taxidermist’s Cut and Todd Kaneko’s The Dead Wrestler Elegies. The dolls are jointed with fasteners, reminding me of the Commedia Dell’Arte paper marionnettes I made from one of those Dover Publications books in my childhood. (Probably this one.) In an interview with Cincinnati Review editor Bess Winter, “The Doll is the Third Space”, Henley shares why she assembles her dolls from multiple moving parts:
To make art that is not static, that can change even once it’s been made, means there is no being done with the thing; the life of the art piece extends beyond my handling of it. Photos, paintings, sculpture: all are fixed, and the only thing that changes, perhaps, is interpretation.
But poseable figures, especially ones with lots of joints, can change in shape, composition and mood. Even if a doll’s face is frozen in a smile, the implication of that smile changes when the legs are squat in a birthing position and the arms are reaching to the sky. Tilt the head a bit, and the smile is mischievous or coy. People who have purchased my dolls love taking photos of them in various poses and locations. They get to play and also collaborate in the artistic process.
On the Marsh Hawk Press blog, poet Elaine Equi gives prompts for getting back into the flow of writing after too much time away. Starting again at “Square One” can be intimidating, so she starts by guiding us not to fear the blank space. The essay itself is written somewhat like a poem, with stanza breaks and fragmentary phrases that enact the “room to breathe” that she recommends.
For me, an essential part of writing is to make a clearing,
first in my mind, then on the page,
so words can be seen, heard, taste-tested.
A clear ring like one of those pristine sound booths
that will allow the words to resonate.
White space is important.
What’s not said can be as important, possibly more important, than what is.
There are already so many texts, messages, words directed at us each day.
Every inch, every surface, seems covered in words.
But even words need room to breathe—and breed.
To de-clutter from words, Equi pivots to other senses. She might make or study visual art–a practice I find restorative, too. Listen to music, move your body, go for a walk. One of my hard-working poet friends fiercely defends the time spent lying on the couch, just thinking. That’s writing too!
PEN America is an organization that defends freedom of speech for writers worldwide. Their just-published report, “Booklash: Literary Freedom, Online Outrage, and Language of Harm”, studies the negative impact of social media outrage on writers’ ability to address controversial topics. Although the critics in question are often motivated by progressive ideals such as anti-racism, the report argues, our political discourse suffers when publishers over-react by canceling book contracts or revising books without the author’s permission. In many of the examples cited, the book’s problems were capable of other interpretations, or the author’s public behavior was too quickly conflated with the value of the book itself. Individual books and authors become scapegoats for problems with access to publishing as a whole.
There is no inherent contradiction between the belief that the publishing industry must transform to afford greater opportunities to authors from historically excluded backgrounds and the notion that writers must be unconstrained in their choice of subject matter. As PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel has said, “You can dismantle the barriers to publication for some without erecting them anew for others.” The conflation of the need for wider literary representation and strict litmus tests for the legitimacy of authorial voice—two related but distinct issues—threatens to do a disservice to both.
This burden of representation can unexpectedly fall on members the very communities that movements like #OwnVoices seek to elevate, forcing them to reveal aspects of their identity that they might not have otherwise chosen to make public.
I thought that this lengthy report was a carefully researched and well-argued discussion of censorship from the Left. The cases studied were generally not analogous to J.K. Rowling’s sustained, intentional misuse of her public platform to attack a minority group. The living authors whose books were literally canceled (by publishers and distributors) shared most of the political values of their critics. Some were attacked for writing outside their own demographic, others for some ill-advised public statement that had nothing to do with the book’s contents. Media pile-ons don’t distinguish between honest errors and true prejudice pervading a text. The separation between author and text has been erased in our era of personal branding, leading to shallow ad hominem attacks on books that the critics may not even have read. Moreover, the overheated language of literary “harm” plays into the hands of right-wing government censors who crusade against LGBTQ-affirming and anti-racist literature.
Who needs an audience when you can enjoy your own artistry as much as this charming old gentleman? British character actor David Foster’s titular song from his 2015 one-man show is full of queeny double entendres, reminiscent of Quentin Crisp or John Inman. No, I’m not giving away the name; watch it for yourself.
Mr. Humphries made my college years more bearable.