The 'process notes' pieces were originally solicited by Maw Shein Win as addendum to her teaching particular poems and poetry collections for various workshops and classes. This excerpt and process note by Dean Rader is part of her curriculum for her Poetry Workshop at the University of San Francisco in their MFA Program for spring semester of 2023 and for Poetry In Process: Creating Together, A Workshop.
My recent collection of poems, Before the Borderless: Dialogues with the Art of Cy Twombly, doesn’t really sound too much like a book of poetry. If you look at the title or even the front cover, you’d think it was a series of interviews or perhaps some essays in response to individual artworks. “Poems” is nowhere to be found.
This was intentional.
My editors at Copper Canyon and I wanted the book to foreground two things: 1) Twombly and 2) Engagement. In short, we wanted Before the Borderless to feel and look like an art book.
But, once you get inside, I hope things feel and look like something utterly new. I was particularly interested in having the reader experience the Twombly image and my poem together, concurrently, in real time. So, when you open the book, the Twombly image is on the left-hand page, and my poem is on the right-hand page. You can see the two texts in conversation. My dream is that the reader is looking at both, holding both in their heads and hearts, and feeling the energy going back and forth.
A pipe dream I know, but a poet can dream . . .
Writing poems that talk to abstract art can be really disorienting, especially when that art appears to be nothing more than scribbles. I also felt challenged to do the impossible: make the poems as engaging, awe-inspiring, beautiful, maddening, and provocative as the Twombly pieces themselves. I knew that was fruitless, but I had an aesthetic (and an ethical?) calling to do the art justice.
I did not want to copy Twombly’s art or emulate it or even explain it, but I wanted to channel its awesomeness. I set myself this task: could I recreate Twombly’s aesthetic energy—the overall feeling of the artwork—in my poem? Could I do on the page what Twombly does on the canvas? Do I dare even try?
Well, try I did. The jury is still out on whether I was successful, but I’ll give two examples here.
Below is an iconic Twombly piece and my poem that engages it.
Traditional modes of ekphrastic poetry are not super inventive. For example, if you read William Carlos Williams’ poems about Breughel paintings, they can skew toward the dull, doing little more than describing the scene in the painting. Given that the scene in this Twombly is, well, scribbles, I thought I would have a little fun and make my poem an homage to ekphrastic description.
But funk it up a bit.
In the Twombly drawing (Untitled from 1969), the action seems to be going in two different directions at once. Are we supposed to be “reading” it from left to right, like a piece of writing? Or is the movement of top to bottom, like a grid or a table? I decided: both.
So, I constructed a poem that could be read horizontally (unraveled yarn, scribbled egg, broken slinky saddle stitch, spaghetti curl, white whirl) or vertically (unraveled yard, scribbled egg, broken slinky on the pavement, inverse hills, nonsense circuit).
also feel like the drawing has no real beginning and no end. I wanted my poem
to have that same feeling of in medias res, like you are arriving right
in the middle of things. The title suggests that there might, somewhere, be a
sestet. But, we’ll never get there because the octet never ends.
Somehow, that seems like an apt metaphor for poetry. And life.
of poetry and life, here is another example:
One thing I have always loved about Twombly is that he and I love the same poets—Rilke, Stevens, Keats, Lorca, and in this case, Sappho. Often, his visual art is little more than a scrawling of lines of poetry in a penmanship that is not easy to decipher. Why this is so endearing/beguiling/uplifting to me is too complicated to explore here (I guess that is what my book is for), but suffice to say, there is something really captivating about this piece.
Entitled Untitled (To Sappho), this almost minimal drawing is from 1976 and is little more than a purple splotch and a handwritten fragment from Sappho: “like a hyacinth in the mountains, trampled by shepherds until only a purple stain remains on the ground.”
My poem tries to echo this drawing through two different formal gestures. First, as you no doubt noticed, the letters and words in Twombly’s drawing get larger toward the end, and the lines get longer. So, too, do the lines in my poem.
Secondly, and more importantly, this poem is a Golden Shovel, a fabulously inventive form created by Terrance Hayes. In a Golden Shovel, the last word in each line of a poem spells out or re-writes a previously published poem. So, in the case of “Meditation on Remembering,” the last word of each line recreates the Sappho poem. Start with the last word of the first line, and just go down reading only the last word of each line.
Thus, Sappho is embedded in both Twombly’s drawing and my poem. Me talking to Twombly who is talking to Sappho who I am also talking to.
I was working on this poem not long after Breonna Taylor was killed. I was horrified by her murder. I began thinking about who gets remembered and who gets forgotten. Who harms others? And who gets harmed? How often are we—in particular, women—in particular women of color— harmed by those they treat well? The italicized words to this effect are also from Sappho and felt crushingly pertinent.
Overall, my strategy was to do in a book what Twombly does over the course of his career by calling attention to micro gestures and macro concerns. Twombly loved the marriage of text and image. I want my book—and these poems—to celebrate that love.
Dean Rader has authored or co-authored twelve books. His debut collection of poems, Works & Days, won the 2010 T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize. His 2014 collection Landscape Portrait Figure Form was named by The Barnes & Noble Review as a Best Poetry Book. Other titles include his poetry collection Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry and the anthologies Native Voices: Contemporary Indigenous Poetry, Craft, and Conversations and Bullets into Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence. Rader writes and reviews regularly for The San Francisco Chronicle, The Huffington Post, BOMB, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, where he co-authors a poetry review column with Victoria Chang. In 2020, he was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Balakian Award. His new book, Before the Borderless: Dialogues with the Art of Cy Twombly, features Rader’s poems alongside corresponding images by the artist Cy Twombly. Rader’s writing has been supported by fellowships from Princeton University, Harvard University, the MacDowell Foundation, Art Omi, The Headlands Center for the Arts, and the John R. Solomon Guggenheim Foundation, where he was a 2019 Fellow in Poetry. He is a professor at the University of San Francisco.
Maw Shein Win’s most recent poetry collection is Storage Unit for the Spirit House (Omnidawn) which was nominated for the Northern California Book Award in Poetry, longlisted for the PEN America Open Book Award, and shortlisted for CALIBA’s Golden Poppy Award for Poetry. Win’s previous collections include Invisible Gifts (Manic D Press) and two chapbooks Ruins of a glittering palace (SPA) and Score and Bone (Nomadic Press). Win’s Process Note Series features poets and their process. She is the inaugural poet laureate of El Cerrito, CA and teaches poetry in the MFA Program at the University of San Francisco. Win often collaborates with visual artists, musicians, and other writers and was recently selected as a 2023 YBCA 100 Honoree. Along with Dawn Angelicca Barcelona and Mary Volmer, she is a co-founder of Maker, Mentor, Muse, a new literary community. mawsheinwin.com