I belong to an organization that recognizes how much hard-working professional writers and artists have in common. At a recent meeting of the Cape Cod branch of the National League of American Pen Women, I struck up a conversation with Andrea Ker Hutter, a painter who wore the most compelling purple print scarf. It wasn’t just a large purple print scarf. It was an all-encompassing purple print scarf, the kind that made its own introduction: this wearer is An Artist.
Having written many freelance articles on artists, I know they see things – no, really, they SEE things - differently than the rest of us. I was intrigued to learn Andrea had trained as a sculptor and is now an interior design/faux art specialist. My friend Lorie Strait is a sculptor in Paris; I’ve seen her atelier and have a small idea of what it takes to call forth form from a piece of stone or metal. Why would an artist change mediums? What did Andrea need to learn to make the transition? Clearly, this was going to be a lengthy conversation.
Her decision fascinated me in part, I explained, because as a writer, I feel absolutely no temptation, nor do I suspect the necessary talent, to move over into another literary form such as screen writing, poetry, short stories, novels, or memoir. I am a non-fiction prose writer. I savor the process of gathering up information like a harvest, inevitably much more than necessary, then giving it a shape, a purpose, a name. Occasionally, obviously in moments of romantic indulgence, I see myself as the single point of connection between a subject and an audience that will most likely never meet. I’m not caterpillar or butterfly, I’m the cocoon.
Although I tell Andrea only one literary form has ever called me to embrace it, in fact, I recall an exception. There was one time when non-fiction prose was inadequate, unappealing. It was somehow incapable of conveying what needed to be said. A death had occurred in my life, a unique and important loss, staggering in its own way. Suddenly I wanted poetry, I needed poetry. I found peace only in poetry.
It was so surprising, I told the artist. Writing non-fiction prose felt like being in a cramped, dry, airless, colorless place, a small box, a paper bag. So, hesitantly I began to shape my ideas and thoughts and feelings as poems. One ten-part piece titled “Till Life Do Us Part” was six pages long.
No, that is not so surprising, Andrea remarked. She told me of a cousin who began to write poetry when her 37-year-old daughter died. It was a heart attack, a fluke. Friends stopping by had found the young woman dead where she was house-sitting. The cousin was a story teller, an alcohol and drug counselor. But why had she turned to writing poetry in grieving a catastrophic and overwhelming loss? Together we two non-poets pondered the role of this literary form as a salve, a balm, a saving grace.
“I think of poetry as concise, direct, raw,” reflected Andrea, “like Chinese brush painting with simple, elegant, intentional strokes, just enough, no more. Our emotions and interpretations fill the spaces in between. It’s synthesis, stark word pictures. Maybe it’s the exactness in poetry that balances the cataclysmic tides of grief. ”
Perhaps poetry somehow suits extreme circumstances because of lack of structure? No, I don’t think that’s it, I responded. I have a friend, Jacqueline Loring, a superb poet (and Pen Woman) who has won an international poetry contest. When she talks about her process, she applies rules to her work, no matter how unstructured it seems. But writing poetry does feel like dreaming, I said. Yes, agreed Andrea. Her cousin said that too.
Here are two of my poems:
like a mighty arm
across the flat surface
of a cluttered breakfast table,
clearing it of every plate, bowl, and spoon,
juice glass, cereal box, and coffee cup,
jam jar, salt shaker, half-finished piece of toast,
pencil, pen, crayon, unfinished grocery list,
in one single
In the presence of a dying person
you recognize the oppression
of your own vitality,
the force of your whispers
the power of your breath
the exhaustive thrashing
of your thoughts and feelings.
If you try to moderate your being
to reduce this violation,
you will, you must, fail,
and so the chasm
widens and deepens
between your separate souls
as moment by moment
breath by breath,
beat by beat