Art Conversations on Art

Word as Art

In college, I discovered that many things in life are free. Then again came the reality that a whole heck of a lot of things aren’t. Sometime during my sophomore year, I stumbled upon a delicious secret. It kept my weekend evenings regularly packed. It kept me well versed and amused at the theater. I volunteered as an usher. By signing up in advance, taking tickets and pointing paid ticketholders to their seats, I received free entry. As the lights would go down, I would find a nook at the back of the auditorium to watch the play or musical performance. Many good nights were spent in the three theaters on campus.

One evening in particular, I remember ushering with a girl we’ll call Jessica. We’re going to call her Jessica because I don’t actually remember her name. Anyways, she was studying dance at the art school on campus and in between spurts of tearing ticket stubs, we began talking philosophically about what art is. A seemingly innocuous question, ” what are you majoring in?” had taken an unexpected turn. I replied I was studying journalism and poetry. She practically snorted as she quickly responded, “that’s not art.”

For 10 minutes we discussed the fine points of writing as an art form.  Her comment had jostled me to the core. I remember it gestating in my head, distracting me during the performance. Many years later it sits there on the shelf of memories. What could have been one artist talking to another about how their art forms might inform one another ended up being a conundrum of she said, she said. Even after cited attempts of Shakespeare, Woodward and Bernstein, she was unmoved.

Right now we live in interesting times.

The visual form holds our attention so completely that many Americans don’t read. Why read a book when you can see the movie? I have enjoyed my chats with film protagonists and buffs including Sandra and Xavier. I see the visual form as visual storytelling and when done well, what’s not to love. An image can transfix the viewer with such powerful appeal. It tells the viewer what to see when. Some directors show such skill with this medium that you can’t help but be wooed and thusly changed after encountering their work. I love that.

Then again, I live in a city well known for its books and authors. I remember once hearing a statistic that San Franciscans pay per capita more on booze and books than anywhere else in the country. Many people here tout themselves writers “with a book inside, waiting to get out.” And if this is the case, who will read those books?

Cue blogging. Sometimes people stumble upon a person’s blog and find themselves inexorably drawn into the story being told, whether it’s food recipes with photographs that make readers want to lick the screen or whatever appeals to their personal tastes and whims. We live in an age where newspapers are increasingly going from print to online and where books can be printed by the author for a price without having to shop them around to mainstream publishers as the only avenue.

Interesting times indeed.

Several years ago, I developed a fun ritual with my then-roommate Mindy of Tuesday nights as poetry night. See, I knew if she got a taste of it, she might be interested in bigger bites. It didn’t hurt that I scratched her back as we read Billy Corgan, Coleridge and Strand. Night after night, I could count on the television being on, but Tuesday nights, we set aside time for reading poetry aloud. She still mentions how much she loved poetry night.

The need for people to tell their stories is intrinsic and really one of the primary reasons I pursued journalism in the first place. We want details, an insider’s perspective, the close-up shot. If a picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps that says more about the quality of the words used. I for one, am a fan of film, but as with that conversation with Jessica so many years ago, am interested in how film can inspire or inform writing. I love the idea of conversation between art forms. And I believe in the power of the word.


Sonnet 116

Melt. Swoon. I must say my way into this sonnet was via the mouth of Willoughby and Marianne teasing the words out of each other’s mouths and thus feeling a sense of inevitability, one evening in college. I found myself smitten with the buffoon we find Willoughby to become later on in Sense and Sensibility when he rebuffs his true love *we think*, Marianne, to retain his wealth and thus glory.

One of my poetry mentors a few years ago assigned a proper reading of the Norton Anthology as part of the 35 or so books to be devoured in a semester. I stumbled onto Sonnet 116 again and this time, the enticement could not be pinned on Willoughby, this time I found myself smitten by the words.

The sonnet speaks of love in flowery terms as “the star to every wandering bark” but also is dramatic and denotes the kaboom experience of love through soundwork. In it you get the soft m’s, b’s and s’s contrasted with the hard “c” – you get the soft and the hard playing together, paving a road of what love might look like. The sonnet admits two sentence breaks mid-stanza, which if read as part of their line read differently than part of their sentences. They are “admit impediments” and “Oh no!” – an interesting turn given that the former dovetails on the idea of not admitting impediments and the latter defines what love is and is not. Read as part of the line, the impression is different. A line that is particularly compelling to me includes three repetitions that serve as mirrors of love looking at itself, seeing what it is and is not: “Love is not love // which alters when it alteration finds, // or bends with the remover to remove.” I appreciate that in this instance the repeated words play noun on one point and verb on the other- each is subject and action. Love is all about action and the subject doted upon.

When Beck and I talked through what readings we would incorporate into the wedding ceremony, there was no doubt that we needed a poem or two. Initially, we toyed with a pair of Rilke poems about a panther and a gazelle, but decided people might not get the reference, given that one of them is a poignant look at a caged cat. Nope. When I read him Sonnet 116, we agreed it just fit and had the right panache for a wedding joining our two lives. Who wouldn’t want a poem with “tempests”, “the edge of doom” and a “bending sickle” watching over a man and a woman joining their lives together? Okay, maybe many people would shy away, but I guess that’s where my wordsmith husband and I diverge from the pack.

Michael, up to bat

We also needed the right someone to nail the “fix-ed” meter, to appreciate the sobriety of the words and bear them upon their tongue, weighing them out, measuring them for gold or fool’s gold. My cousin Michael gave a beautiful reading, choking up midway through. And the thing is poetry sometimes catches you by surprise. You think you know it and then realize it reveals another side of itself to you if you’re paying attention, like a woman in a trenchcoat, unknotting the belt to show off her little black dress underneath. If you stick with poetry, it rewards you with more of itself and who doesn’t like that?


Sonnet 116
by Shakespeare

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
Oh no! It is an ever fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.