A Q&A by Carolyn Bernier
PY: Did you see the works of art The Battle Between Carnival and Lent and Angelus Novus in person before you wrote your poems? If not, how did you come across and familiarize yourself with images of the paintings?
No, I did not see either of them face to face, but I spent a lot of time looking at each in beautifully produced books that did justice to the works. Also, I frequent a website, the Web Gallery of Art, that allows the viewer to zoom in and see incredible detail. I probably spend an inordinate amount of time perusing Bruegel’s paintings there. His paintings are full of hubbub and peasant life and humor and cynicism, and in my poetry, I aspire to pack that much action into a small rectangle as well.
PY: In your poem “Angelus Novus,” you make references to Walter Benjamin’s criticism of Paul Klee’s oil transfer and watercolor Angelus Novus. Have you always been familiar with Walter Benjamin’s benchmark criticism, and for those not familiar with it, could you summarize?
No, I was not aware of Benjamin’s criticism until I was writing my dissertation (on prose poetry by women, which became the book Boxing Inside the Box: Women’s Prose Poetry, published by Quale Press). My argument in that work launches from a reading of Carolyn Forche’s “The Colonel,” and in examining her work, I, of course, read her poetry collection The Angel of History, which sent me looking for a reference. Voila: Walter Benjamin and that provocative ekphrastic visionary passage. I tend to write about history—particular events as well as the idea of history and the machinations of writing history—and his words in that essay (the ninth Thesis on History) lit a fire inside me. Could I summarize it? No, to be frank.
PY: Describe the creative process you or others undergo while writing ekphrastic poetry. Is it similar to the creative process an art critic, such as Walter Benjamin, experiences?
I do see a similarity between art criticism and the act of writing an ekphrastic poem. However, for me, the process more resembles an act of devotion. I was raised Catholic and was taught by nuns and priests in the ’50s and ’60s, which meant that even as a child I got a belly full of medievalism, and that was a good thing, a definite counterview to the post-Enlightenment, Cold War, 20th century worldview. It made me devout and it drew me to those early modern images that hinted at two worlds, one growing out of and still reflecting the other. I think if you learn as a child to meditate on an image, an icon, a statue, later in life you can meditate deeply on other such visual materials that lead you to the act of ekphrasis.
PY: Did you have to conduct extensive research before writing “The Battle Between Carnival and Lent,” or did you allow the details of the painting to inform your poem?
No, I did not do extensive research because I’m already an historian and overly prone to research. For that reason, my creative process actually has to avoid research because I can drown a poem or a book project in research, which can leech the life out of it.
PY: Which side would you most like see win, Carnival or Lent?
This is a tough one. I’m a person of extremes and thrive on that tension, so I actually am rooting for both: Lent for its discipline of suffering and atonement, Carnival for thumbing its nose at propriety and institutional strictures and for living in the moment. I have to say I wouldn’t take one without the other. They’re at unity at some level.