Thursday, February 16, 2012

Art: on being asked

Curator Magazine


This morning I wrote a five-part sequence of poems in answer to a request for a poem on a very particular subject (also from this morning) from Makoto Fujimura for The Curator, a magazine of International Arts Movement. And I'm thinking about the power of asking--the power of a commission, whether paid or unpaid. Right now my friend Clive is going hammer-and-tongs in answer to a request to illustrate Stravinsky's The Soldiers Tale for a live performance, and you can page through the vigorous, bold results at his Artlog. He just finished fountaining-up images for my upcoming book, The Foliate Head. Why are requests so inspiring? I never use "prompts," although they appear to be quite popular if one can judge by the web. (I don't have anything against them; it just smacks of school and assignments to me, and I refused to let either have much to do with poems.) But a request is definitely a kind of effective prompt--a grand sort of prompt.

Is it because most art types (not musicians and singers, not dancers) are by necessity so solitary in our work, and in our dour, crazy moments fabulate that we are abysmally alone in the writing room or studio and nobody cares about our work (not that such an idea should matter a whit) or bothers to purchase and peruse it and so on? So that a sign of affection from the outside world has the ability to make one toss the "to do" list (however interesting, however pressing) straight over one's shoulder? I don't really think that's the answer... Not sure what is! Newness? Sparking a thought? Whimsical and rather irresponsible behavior? Whatever it is, I like it. Probably that's partly why I like The Lydian Stones. It's fun to ask.

Update: Clive's answer in the comments is more solid than my rather frivolous post!

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While I was looking at The Curator--or maybe at the IAM site--I stumbled across a link to the most common five regrets of those in hospice or palliative care, as collected by a nurse. And I'm thinking about what my regrets would be, were I to tumble down the basement stairs (always a danger, as the dog bolts into me fairly frequently, and she is big, and I am not especially so) and land on my noggin this afternoon. If you feel like telling me yours, I might well tell you mine... if I figure them out. Still meditating the question. Update: Beth Adams responds.


Why is this post so very parenthetical in mode? Tell me that.


  1. oh, i agree. i think it's that the request gives a sense of purpose to what otherwise, on a bad day, becomes enveloped in self-accusations of navel-gazing :D basically what you said, i guess.

    be careful with that dog!

  2. Yep, she's a furry rocket. I should call her My Doom. In. Out. In. Out. Repeat endlessly at high speed.

    Sense of purpose, yes, that's good. But I wonder why more than the equally interesting things (some, anyway) on The List?

    It's true artists need to waste time in order to use time...

  3. First of all, I like your site's new look. I wish I can the patience to do that for my blog!
    Now re: assigned work, I feel very wanted in the rare instance when someone asks me for work. I can think of a couple of cases: you asked me for my Lydian Stones competition. Then there was my friend's request for poems for the journal she co-edits, Inlandia (of course, I had already written that poem, so maybe it doesn't count). As far as prompts go, they work tremendously well for me much of the time. Qarrtsiluni's themes, for instance, have gotten poems out of me several times, and I'm still trying to write one Switchback will take for their monthly prompt.
    I definitely like the idea that someone actually wants to read my poems or essays or whatever. I DO feel the need of a reader very sharply.
    It may be different for others.

  4. Glad you like it. Just a matter of picking out a template and tweaking, really.

    Makes sense to me. And you like prompts, then. I in general find them too much like being told what to do. But I don't feel that way about a request. Somehow. I guess we're all quirky in our own little ways.

  5. Hi again Marly. I'm incoherent today. Sorry for the incomprehensible typos.

  6. To answer, Marly, the question 'Why are requests inspiring?', one should perhaps first qualify with the word 'some': Why are SOME requests inspiring?

    I get asked to contribute to lots of projects, and my answer is nearly always no. I take your point that 'making' is a lonely endeavour, but I don't think I've ever committed to a project simply because it might be nice to open up the doors and put myself about a bit. The most significant question I always ask before ever saying yes, is 'How far will this remove me from what I want to be doing right now?'

    My three recent projects, covers for Damian Walford Davies' forthcoming book 'Witch' and your own 'Foliate Head' plus Stravinsky's 'The Soldier's Tale' presently on my desk, all fitted beautifully to already existing interests I have. Two poets who I love as people as well as being blown away with the power and artistry of their work, and a musical piece that I've been obsessed by for decades (the piano score for it lies next to my easel) images for which... posted on the Artog... led the conductor David Montgomery to my door.

    The fact is that if someone had asked me to do the cover for a book about elephants, or produce images for a libretto unknown to me, I'd have declined. Getting to know a subject can't be hurried, and in my practice I have to know something extremely well before embarking on the journey to bring it visually to life. Foliate heads were already an interest of mine. I'd made a study of them over many years, had made masks and even cut book-plates featuring them. That iconography allied to poems you'd already shown to me, didn't require any preparation other than launching myself into the air and flying. A joy! The same with Damian. His text was based on historical events that I'd already been interested in and read a great deal about. The imagery for the cover wasn't elusive in the slightest.

    What I do is akin to extemporising on themes rather like a jazz player. I worry at imagery familiar to me to wring all the potential from it. The familiar can render up all sorts of magic when you run with it, play with it, riff on it.

    So when these projects came my way there was synchronous aspect that made the pieces fit comfortably. The creativity didn't feel forced or pressurised. That's rare. I recognise such things immediately when they present themselves. For other artists it may be different, but this is how it is for me.

  7. That sounds exactly right! Great little essay...


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.