M E A N I N G

A few years ago, the poet Charles Bernstein read at Smith College in Northampton, MA. The event happened to take place in a science hall; a gigantic image of the periodic table of the elements loomed over the stage. When Bernstein got up to read, instead of turning to his manuscript,  he raised his face to the chart and began to recite the table:

800px-Periodic_table.svg  free image

“Huhh!”  “Hheeeee!”  “Lihhhhhhhhh, Lie!”

“Be!!”

“Buh, Cuh, nnnN … Oh.

(“Eff!”)

What!? Sound revealed as an element of the elements! A music of the spheres? Yet the sounds uttered were human, guttural, raw—elemental. Residing in the gaps between the units of the grid was deep feeling that Bernstein contacted and brought forth. We witnessed, not a recitation after all, but a magic, a creation. Bernstein recombined the basic stuff of physical being into a new kind of matter: a poem.

Instead of following a linear narrative or a related sequence of images, this poem relied for its meaning on chance, juxtaposition, sound, sound-texture, rhythm, and the release of unqualified emotion. The poem could be considered “abstract.” Just as painting can be about the paint itself—its physical and emotional qualities—and not about what the paint is representing, poetry can use the sonorous and even visual properties of words to affect us. It does not need to rely only on what words do in their typical settings of grammar and syntax. These qualities are present in all poetry and art,  though they can be easy to overlook in favor of  the explanation or description we usually think of as “meaning.”

I recently heard a lecture, On the Lyric, by Norman Fischer, a Jewish Zen teacher and poet whose work, though lyrical, enters, as does Bernstein’s, the sphere of the abstract, the so-called “language poetry.” Fischer says the roots of the lyric reach back not only to the Greeks, whose rhetoric tends to tell us about the world, but also to the very different Hebrew imagination. This imagination makes a poetry, as in the psalms, that is a private conversation between the poet and “God,” the unknowable. A reader of such poetry becomes party to these conversations. But we are not being spoken to directly; we are being allowed to overhear a sacred argument, a holy wrestling. This type of lyric does not explain anything, says Fischer, but instead lets us feel something. If the poem is effective what we feel is the inarticulate sensation of universal human longing for the divine connection, and the grappling with its out-of-reachness.

In the early nineties, before I’d heard of Bernstein or Fischer, I made a painting I called, Feeling Permeates the Structure of the Universe: 

Feeling Permeates the Structure of the Universe by Rosemary Starace

I was grappling with opposites, especially the seeming contradictions of will and feeling, intention and flow, logos and eros, meaning and emptiness. In this exploration, influenced by my typographer husband, I discovered words and letters anew: as entities that could convey, through shape, juxtaposition, size, color, and texture, a meaningfulness that existed in addition to their literal meaning. The opposites were not opposed, but intertwined. In the beginning was the Feeling that permeates and underlies the Word.

Around that same time, my friend, artist Joel Schapira, also started making paintings out of words. One of them, Letter from Jack Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg: Not Just Colorful Characters (14 feet x 8 feet), hangs in the student center at Naropa University:

Letter from Jack Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg: Not Just Colorful Characters, by Joel Schapira

Schapira’s Letter from JK to AG makes words into colors and shapes, figures on a ground, and separates the individual words into a grid of vivid bubbles that float off the canvas independent of their original context. The words of the original letter become like recombinant strands of  DNA. Schapira allows different meanings to arise, form, and re-form, as our eye-ears connect the color red with red and “wHAt” with “frOM.” And, we are privy to Schapira’s wrestling: “my Alone, we must speak!” is what I overhear, what I read over Schapira’s shoulder.

Still, the letter Kerouac wrote, its ostensible meaning, is not totally obscured by the new revelations. Abstraction and representation live side by side, and even become one thing: Schapira abstracts the content of Ginsberg’s letter as he represents the shapes and forms of letters and words. Similarly, Bernstein’s utterance concretized (represented) the abstraction of the periodic table, revealing the feeling that resides within its seemingly cool structure.

The elements themselves, the periodic table of the elements, Bernstein’s poem of same, and the two word paintings inhabit the same generative universe, the place where we all live and look for the meaning we can never quite find or understand.

But this tension, too, can be reconciled, lived fully. Art has an even deeper purpose than the conveyance of ordinary meaning. It is “the pulling apart of meaning so that mystery can be revealed.”* 

Letter from Jack Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg: Not Just Colorful Characters (Detail), by Joel Schapira

*(Thomas Moore, Dark Nights of the Soul, page 311.)

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“Doin’ Your Thing at the Crafts Shop”*

"The Arts & Crafts" watercolor by Joseph Starace, 1960s

“The Arts & Crafts at BLC” watercolor by Joseph Starace, 1960s

The Arts & Crafts is a place where you hang out and make things if you feel like, and talk about this and that—if you feel like. There are lots of materials around, and things other people made in various stages of done-ness. There are also things you made and things you left unfinished, and might or might not get back to. In a cubby on the wall, there’s a little box with your name on it, and it contains scraps of colored paper and pieces of wood you found interesting.  You fool around, and maybe somebody shows you how to do something. There’s a back room that doesn’t have windows and the best materials are there, stores of them. Candy bars, too. The person who runs the place is a bit nuts and doesn’t fit in,  and that’s exactly why you like to go there.

There’s little of significance anywhere. You are not engaged in anything “important,” although you are very engaged. You understand the blessed concreteness of tile ashtrays and lanyards, and the alchemical transformations of the enamel jewelry oven. You make things for your mother, as well as for yourself.

I spent all my childhood summers in a place like this. The happy chaos of the Arts & Crafts, its aura of permission, its lack of pretension, still compel my imaginings about what it really means to make art. What if I sprinkled my words with metal powders and let them coalesce without help in a special oven? What if I braided my lines and sentences like lanyard cord, and just left the long strings hanging when I get bored? What if I roamed from project to project, and copied what you were doing because I liked it?

What if I snuck into the back room when no one was looking, and made off with some fabulous stuff—because I knew the truth, that it was all there for me?

 

*”Doin’ Your Thing at the Crafts Shop” is the title of a song about the Arts & Crafts at Brant Lake Camp in New York State. Words and music by Irwin Cohen. The person who ran the place was Mike Ilgner. The painting, of the actual building, was made by my late brother, Joseph Starace, when he was a boy.

All you need is…

Scribble

Scribble 1 (drawing by RS)

What does it take to write poetry, to make art? Does it require a special endowment, given only to some?

When I was already nearly 30, and still hiding my writing and art under the bed, I stumbled onto The New York Feminist Art Institute. This was during the heyday of “women’s liberation” when many of us began to learn that “the personal is political.” The women at the school were ardent activists in a variety of ways, but the most radical part of their philosophy for me was their egalitarian view of art and artists. “Art-making arises from self-understanding,” they said, and “content inspires form.” (NYFAI catalog, 1980) My whole self trusted this approach, which hinted I might possess something intrinsic that I could draw on in my creative work.

Before that I had simply not known where art came from.  It appeared to me as if it came from talent—and from education, knowledge, and experience I didn’t have access to. I had felt the urge, the inner necessity to paint, to write poems and songs, but I did not know how to respond to my own need. I had tried, and dropped, a few art classes, finding it too uncomfortable to reveal both my aspirations and my ignorance.

The classes I had taken were bewildering. Students gathered around a still life setup, each one painting the same scene from a different view. This reminded me of the only previous art training I’d had, in elementary school, where teacher hung up a completed crayon drawing, usually on a seasonal theme, and handed out stencils and cutouts so we could all reconstruct exactly the same image. At a world-famous art school in New York, I heard, “You must always put an odd number of objects in your still lifes!” And, “You are holding your brush the wrong way!” I could not see what this actually had to do with art, yet I was not only disheartened, but also intimidated by these mysterious and, to me, arbitrary, rules.

The New York Feminist Art Institute erased the silly rules and gave me a set of principles I could connect with and use. Eventually, I saw that their terms could be expanded:  Art-making arises from something even deeper and more fundamental than self. Call it Self—a term that includes our personal selves as well as other beings, and both the external world and the deep world. Without continued attention to all of these things, art becomes all surface and technique, mimicry—a classroom wall of Thanksgiving turkeys.

And content does inspire form, not necessarily in the sense that, say, a particular subject or feeling would bring forth a sonnet instead of a prose poem, or an abstraction instead of a portrait, but in the sense that who we are, the contents of our lives, leads us inevitably to what we create. Our art appears as the fruit of what we pay attention to.

Yet the Feminist Art Institute’s primary insight is correct: while the impulse to create is engaged by our interaction with the world, it is our own response to that experience that gives rise to art. Art flows from the inner to the outer, moves from the heart of being outward into form. This has profound implications for all people, and especially for women, because it locates the impetus for art-making and the content of art in one’s own being—rather than in an external and often male-defined paradigm of suitable subjects, styles, materials, techniques, or approaches to being an artist. It radicalized me, as a woman who had no grounding in the arts and who could have hardly expected, given my culture and education, to make the perilous interior and exterior journey that art requires. What it gave me was the knowledge that all I need to make art is openness to the flow of being through my own self and the world. Every human being has access to her or his own openness. It is a skill that can be cultivated. This skill is the “inner craft” that precedes and underlies the technical skills that also help art emerge.