Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Thursday, February 11, 2016

You Asked, no. 11: a painter's words

Mary's studio windows and chest of drawers.
Click to enlarge the images.
In response to a request to interview some of my painter friends, I have been interviewing Mary Boxley Bullington. As she, in turn, insisted on interviewing me, a part of the You asked series will be composed of our questions to each other.

Youmans: We met in college, in a writing class taught by R. H. W. Dillard. You still write poetry (and I still think you should put a book together.) Talk about the ebb and flow of your own writing, and how its course (a tidal stream, maybe?) moves through the lands of your painted work. 

A motto for
Mary's studio
Bullington: Marly! You have given a question here that I could write a book or 2 about—or at least a chapter or two. So I propose answering this question in parts. We don't want to overwhelm our dear readers!  
     My first impulse was to say that I find writing poems and painting really don't mix. In fact, I wrote out a rather petulant first draft of an answer saying how antithetical the process of working on each of these art forms is for me. True!  I find that writing of any kind—and the analytical thinking that goes with it--gets in the way of making visual art, and therefore I try NOT to mix the two. On the whole, I find that the act of writing activates very different parts of my brain from the act of making visual art, so I consciously try not to get too verbal or analytical when I'm in my studio, especially when beginning a new work or radically revising an old one.
Mary in the studio, c. 2010
      I was also going to say that the "course (a tidal stream, maybe?)" of my literary thinking or writing process that "moves through the lands of painted work" comes mostly after the fact, or in the later stages of making visual art, or in titling finished pieces. Once I cross the studio threshold, I try to block verbal (much less literary) modes of thinking. If I turn on the radio too soon, the words of the D.J. or the lyrics of music can get in my way. I like to get down to work most often in utter silence. I pick up a tool or a color, look at whatever I have on the table, and decide if I want to fool with that today. If I have a blank sheet of paper in front of me, I start to make arbitrary marks and see what happens. Sometimes I'll write down an arbitrary phrase of two, or the names of the colors I'm using—not to stimulate verbal thinking, but as a mindless way of drawing. Because writing, especially cursive writing, was the first training I ever got in drawing. To write words down
on paper or canvas or wood is, at the most literal level, to draw! And our handwriting is so ingrained in us by the time we're grown that writing with a pencil, crayon or other graphic tool is a kind of drawing that we do without thinking—or at least, without thinking of it as drawing per se. So I begin by making marks or writing phrases or screwing around in some way that makes the paper less clean. In short, I begin by doodling.
     
The rainbowed shelves
of acrylic paints.
     Fact is, I love doodling. All through grade school I doodled; all through college and graduate school. Not one of my spiral bound notebooks is free of awful and godawful doodles and woodles and woogs. It's the only way I survived all those words coming at me! (Mind you, all my formal education, right up to the Ph.D., is in English.) But I confess that doodling during my classes helped me weed out the stuff I wanted to remember from the rest. Without it, I'd have died of boredom. Nothing made of paper was sacrosanct--not even the family telephone book; not even the mimeographed poems in our creative writing classes; not even my F. N. Robinson 2nd edition of Chaucer's Works. At 40-something, I decided to buy another copy
"The Studio, Early September" 2011
of that sainted edition because I found the doodles I'd done in the margins of my old one in my early twenties distracting and downright embarrassing.
    
     Ah! But here I DO see a marked similarity between my process in writing poems and my process in making visual art. The years of creative experience I had of writing poems was of sitting down in front of a typewriter or a blank screen and doing a kind of mental doodling. This was not drawing, but simply letting words come, and come totally at random. When I start writing a poem, any word will do. My first job is—and always has been--to pay attention, and to type the words, phrases, and sentences almost as rapidly as they come into my brain. And the kind of attention I pay—rapt attention—is key to this process. I can change the words later, but at the start, I dare not break the chain that brings them, one after another, sometimes filled with surprises. I'm not making a poem at this point, not at all. I am simply recording a rhythmic, hypnotizing thought, a thought I didn't necessarily know I could have, and to have it I have let it come, word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence.
Mary's poetry table, downstairs.
     My life-long penchant for doodling in tandem with this process of waiting and letting come what may is a strong common current that runs through both my poetry making and visual art making. When I go into my studio, I'm not there to create a picture—much to less to create Art with a capital A. I am there to make marks on a surface, draw from thin air or perhaps from a photograph, cut and arrange shapes on a surface. Whether the marks or arrangements will be any good is not, at this point, any of my business. My business is to make marks, cuts, and arrangements and pay attention-- rapt attention--to whatever ensues.   

***
Click on You Asked in the labels below for the whole series thus far. Click on Bullington-Youmans interview party for just the Mary-Marly yack so far.

19 comments:


  1. Errors, omissions and other peccadildoes I found just now (alas!) in My Answer to Marly's fine Question will be corrected tomorrow. My apologies! --MBB

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  2. I am completely thrilled to read this, Mary! I just wish I were fully alert but am in the middle of
    both a minorish depressive spell and a deadline ... I will come back to this when I have more of my wits about me. The verbal/visual dichotomy is one I know well ( our stories though are very different) and I am always so happy to meet a fellow traveler on that highway. Thank you for this.

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    1. Laura, glad that you liked it--and hope you vault over both those very different issues soon. There will be more response in a day or two.

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    2. February blues--know'em well, Laura. And Deadlines!
      Many writers are also would-be artists or minor artists (Jean Cocteau, Henry Miller, etc.), but I've only read one well known visual artist who's talked about the conflict that can occur when a young person has 2 fairly strong talents. The Abstract Expressionist Joan Mitchell opted for painting because, she said, she obeyed the proverb, "Jack of all trades, master of none." This too was my fear. I elected to concentrate on writing--and scholarship--for many years, putting art on a back-burner in the summer kitchen until I was about 40. By the time I finished my dissertation on the 14th-century Pearl-poet, all I wanted to do was paint--and collage. And damn if I didn't collage a second, visual dissertation of sorts, largely based on medieval biblical illuminations,as a solo gallery show that opened almost exactly a year after I defended. You can't stuff what you've got forever--or at least, you probably shouldn't. --Mary Bullington

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    3. Oh, would have liked to see that show...

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    4. Didn't want to sign above as "Anonymous" but there was a grim troll under the Blog bridge demanding URLS and PWs and proof that I wasn't a robot. TG Marly acted as BillyGoatGruff and fixed that!

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  3. And thank YOU, Marly, for asking the questions.

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  4. I was delighted to read this, Mary and Marly, and find it fascinating. For me, too, the processes or making art and writing are quite different and I like to keep them pretty separate, but I never really thought about it consciously. Thank you, Mary, for articulating your process so clearly! And now, I really want to read some of your poems.

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    1. I'm always bugging her to put a manuscript together! And have been lucky enough to see a number of them.

      Yes, I expect you would enjoy a chat with Mary!

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    2. In Part 2 of my answer to Marly's Interview Q5, I share a couple of poems. So stay tuned!

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  5. So happy to read this post for many reasons, not least because of the reference to R.H.W. Dillard, a much admired poet, translator and teacher in the Roanoke Valley where I grew up. Great to see his photo on the Hollins site just now!

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    1. I can't say that I ever enjoyed myself so thoroughly with any other classes--that is, enjoying the deep pleasure of being alive to making poems and talking about them in interesting ways.

      Richard has charisma and charm. He's an endearing personality!

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  6. I am so glad you asked Mary this question Marly. I have also wished she would make a book of her poems and her paintings together, but I see that this is not likely to happen because of the way she feels about the two processes.
    Well Mary, a book of your poems by themselves would be appreciated. I would love to see it.

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    1. Eventually, maybe. Hope so. I keep bothering her about it. She has been revising of late.

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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.