When poets and visual artists work together, they negotiate a shared language. In collaboration, they explore how their work, well, works together: both engage with form and shape, utilize symbolic thought, and explore metaphor of various kinds. Materials change and mutate in the hands of artists, and often come to their final forms after many revisions and drafts, possible versions begun and set aside. Art exists in the friction—the frisson—between idea and making, in the often never-fully-complete translation between the inception of an idea (which is always perfect because it’s unmade) and the fruition of that idea. It’s a never-ending, self-perpetuating cycle that calls us back to the blinking screen, the empty table, the blank wall.
Because of this shared language and love of frisson, poets and visual artists can learn a lot from each other. I became more aware of this during work on my collection of poems, All Beautiful & Useless, published in 2015. I had begun many of the poems years earlier, and obsessively worked and reworked them. But I felt there was something missing from this collection, yet couldn’t put my finger on what that was.
Some of the poems center around a story I’d heard growing up in my hometown of Wautoma that sounded too awful to be true. The crimes of Edward Gein, a murderer and grave robber who made home furnishings from human body parts, haunted me as a girl. And the fact that his crimes had happened here (or near here, one town over in Plainfield), made it that much worse. In my poem “Squirrel Memory,” I lay out the facts of Gein’s crimes, and I call them “simple.” But his crimes, like my memory of learning about them, were anything but simple. In the poem, I recall how a third-grade classmate showed me Judge Robert H. Gollmar’s gruesome book about Ed Gein with its photo-filled “center section, glossy, split open and edible.”
My memory of this event forms the title of the poem, and comes from a later line as well: “I want to have a squirrel memory, find that year later, / like a dollar bill in a jacket pocket.” I remembered and forgot what I saw on the playground that day of third grade for years and years. As that image of the “squirrel memory” suggests, it is only in in re-finding that memory years later (like a buried acorn) that I could make sense of it. My experience, as a child, of those images, and the story they told, couldn’t be understood. This suggests one way that art can allow us to understand experience: it can allow us the necessary distance to revisit something terrifying and confusing. Once we’ve fashioned something into language and metaphor, it becomes less able to traumatize. The work of constructing the poem gave me power over that moment.
Yet, even as strong as “Squirrel Memory” and these poems other were on their own, the sense that they were somehow a collection eluded me. They seemed like fragments, memories that were somehow incomplete. That is, until I met someone who would help me think differently about my work.
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I was introduced to an artist named Mollie Oblinger at an art gallery opening of a mutual friend in Green Lake, Wisconsin. I got to talking with this woman wearing fabulous vintage cat-eye glasses, and learned that Mollie taught art and sculpture at nearby Ripon College. As this was a Friday in Wisconsin, a small group of us adjourned to a nearby tavern for fish fry. We sat at picnic tables alongside the Fox River near a place where sturgeon are known to spawn every spring. Over napkins weighted down with rocks and tartar sauce squeeze bottles, we talked about poetry, art, and small-town stories. Mollie and I were the only non-couple there, so when the waitress was sorting out receipts, she asked if we were together. “Not yet,” Mollie replied with a smile, “but it’s going well."
Later, looking at Mollie’s website, I was struck by how her work was so firmly rooted in place, in landscape, in the lines of shore and water and drift. I could almost feel the breeze off of Lake Michigan, walking the shore and gathering smooth grey stones from the frothed high wave mark, the bits of driftwood and scattered reed underfoot.
But her colors were so saturated—fuchsia and teal and deep mustard—as to be almost artificial-looking, a palette that had never been sun- or water-washed. She’d taken (it seemed to me) the suggestions of landscape and manipulated them into something other. The pieces had titles like that had lain torpid or underlaid with flotsam that seemed to be part of some larger narrative or fragment of memory, asking to be remembered. Perhaps, like I had done with “Squirrel Memory,” she’d exerted some control over the found material of experience, asserting her own aesthetic.
In my own work, I often play with narrative and fragments as well. Revisiting the self I was when I first learned the Ed Gein story led me to think about the way girls tell and understand stories. My third-grade self was transfixed by the photographs of Gein’s victim and (there’s no other way to say this) her body. Growing up as I did, it was common to see a deer carcass hung in a tree or garage. So, as a child, the image of Bernice Worden’s body became mixed up with other images: a road kill doe my father hung in the garage and salvaged for the meat, and her twin fawns that we preserved for the high school science classroom.
Often when we don’t understand something, we’re left with fragments. As a poet (and an adult), I found myself revisiting these fragments of memory to write the poems that reconstructed my childhood memories.
I sent Mollie some of my poems, wondering if our fragments might somehow speak to each other. She had just returned to Wisconsin from a residency at Playa in Oregon with a group of other artists, scientists, and writers, and she was looking for a similar community here. I was newly inspired by the stories of my hometown, Wautoma, but looking to expand my creative circle as well. We were both looking for each other, perhaps.
We continued our “getting to know you” process, which had multiple parts. First, sharing our work: I visited her home and studio space to see her sculptures, which contain organic and off-puttingly inorganic elements. What looks touchable and inviting is often molded and unyielding. There’s a mix of soft materials (felt, yarn) in glaring colors. Natural materials like wood are painted with latex or polymer. The natural and the synthetic bed down together. And her studio space is a “perfect white cube” (her words) with fluorescent lights.
Mollie explains her use of color as a palette of maps and charts “whose purpose is to make the contrast obvious.” Her sculpture work explores the natural environment, often with a close eye on human intervention. These intersections, alterations, and manipulations can come in the shape of a reservoir or changing drought patterns. Sometimes she’ll layer photographs of a crust of dried mud with a panoramic vista. Much of her work plays with the intersections between the world-as-is and the world as we make it.
In a happy coincidence, just prior to my visit to Mollie’s studio the manuscript that would become All Beautiful & Useless was accepted for publication. My publisher indicated that he would be open to having original artwork on both the cover and interior pages. Mollie’s work seemed to have some correspondences to mine, but in a way that wasn’t literal; this seemed an opportunity for us.
It was important for both of us, to not think of our work as any kind of illustration or depiction. If Mollie was to provide artwork for my poetry, I wouldn’t want it to be any kind of accompaniment. If at some point in the future, I could provide poetry or text for her, I wouldn’t want it to be descriptive or decorative. For both of us, the point of collaboration wouldn’t be to explain—or make the other’s work more accessible.
• • • • •
Before we dove into any kind of collaboration, I needed to know if my new friend was Wisconsin enough. I devised a test that included a rope-swing leap into a swimming hole and a visit to the Amish store for the only appropriate choice of ice cream. She got it right: Blue Moon. And while she might have worn water shoes (she was worried the swimming hole could be rocky) she more than made up for it by making refrigerator pickles with the pickling spice she got at the Amish store.
As we munched on pickles and pondered collaborating on the book, I showed Mollie a poem with a number of lines redacted that I hoped to place toward the front of the collection. It was a complete poem, and at the last minute, before submitting, I blacked out whole sections, like redacted letters sent home from war. There are actual letters under those heavy black shapes, of course. But they form words that I couldn’t bring myself to print, and a story too dear, too painful, and perhaps too malicious for publication. It was one of the poems that drew Mollie into the text.
It might seem strange to publish a poem with swaths of text blacked out. But, if we’re being honest, the stories we “know” (or claim to know) are always redacted because they are our versions of ourselves. In many ways I began All Beautiful & Useless in order to draw attention to this simple yet often unexpressed truth: The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are full of missing pieces.
That first day of sharing our work, Mollie showed me some photographs she’d been playing with, cutting strips out of the landscapes with an Exacto knife and re-weaving these missing pieces back into the antecedent image. We decided to explore this process to create a frontispiece for each section of the book. Mollie started with a black and white landscape photograph that played with the original image, dissected it, shadowed the missing parts, and in some cases, re-wove missing parts back into the page.
In my book, we used these pieces to introduce sections that include the voices of the accusing girls at Salem, poems that half-tell stories about growing up girl in rural Wisconsin, and a final section that revisits those childhood stories of Ed Gein. Each of Mollie’s pieces suggests the ideas of remembering and re-membering: pieces hobbled together to re-tell stories that are dear and harrowing.
The sudden strangeness of the ordinary, occasioned by looking anew at something we’ve seen before, runs through Mollie’s work, too. It is part of why I was drawn to the image we chose for the book cover, diverted to fructify. What appears skeletal—perhaps a ribcage—is not. What appears thinly made, like spun plastic, looks porous under closer inspections, almost as if it would give if touched by a finger.
Mollie made diverted to fructify after researching California’s historic drought in preparation for an exhibit at a college in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The shape of the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta is the red porous form that slumps over itself in the face of plans (the “ribcage”) to channel its water down state. While her work examines specific locations, the issues Mollie explores are universal. For instance, the battle for water in California is not unlike the one raging in the Central Sands Region of Wisconsin.
Since All Beautiful & Useless was published in 2015, I’ve traveled and given readings, and have talked with poets, students, and teachers around the country. Often these conversations fall into two categories. There’s the normal talk about the poems—the subjects, metaphors, and imagery of my work, which are unabashedly rural Wisconsin. Sometimes the conversation stops there. But every so often there’s a pivot into the “flyover country” conversation that begins: How can you write there? The juxtaposition of a person holding your book (which is chock full of poems about there) suggesting you face a dearth of material simply because of where you live is unbelievably comic.
But I know what they’re really asking. And I know enough not to laugh.
Finding a creative community can be a little more difficult for artists and writers who choose to live in rural or small communities. But it’s necessary to have someone to push us to look beneath, behind, and beyond. Maybe there’s a season for it, and a place, like those sturgeon-spawning sites along the Fox River. I’m lucky to have stumbled upon Mollie, and I probably should have placed less importance on whether she liked Blue Moon ice cream.
This last summer, I picked Mollie up and told her to bring those water shoes. We went swimming in a nearby quarry, part of this place’s history that appeals to me and a landscape I thought would appeal to her. I thought she should see and know more about the quarries, the people who worked them, the stories beneath the waters and the dangers they still harbor. Back in the woods are smaller quarries where tragedies happen semi-regularly. The locals say it’s only out-of-towners who get in trouble—they don’t know what they’re doing.
As a kid, we were warned to never swim in the quarries; a warning that had as much to do with the dangers of drowning as what else we might encounter there, the kinds of exploration and celebration that haunt parents’ dreams (especially the parents of girls). But Mollie and I went, grown women on a sunny day to dip into the still water, where the cut away and blasted granite faces mirrored themselves.
As we skittered along the rocky ledges, Mollie gave me advice on some animation programs I could use to experiment with some new poetry forms; we had a polite disagreement about some proposed legislation. We’re still friends. She still updates me about gallery shows for us to go to, and still mocks me when I wax poetic about pan-fried squirrel. I send her links to journals seeking collaborative work and residencies that want poets and artists to work together.
Perhaps the evidence of a successful collaboration can be found in the moments when we think of each other; that is, think of our own work and the impetus of our work through each other.
Any agreement, common law or codified, rests on the mutual contribution of the parties who work together for some common purpose. In our case, the ongoing relationship urges both artist and poet to engage with new forms, new subjects, new platforms—and with each other. It’s not always easy. True collaboration requires an intimacy and vulnerability not easily achieved, not easily undone.