Saturday, March 31, 2007

Poetry and the Visual: The Ultimate Appreciation

[Intaglio prints embodying the poems of Cleopatra Mathis.]

It's been a wildly busy week, and the poetry events of yesterday (Cleopatra Mathis) and today (Rachel Hadas; 4 p.m., St. J. Athenaeum, receiving the Athenaeum Award medal in the arts) are the happy fruit of it.

Yesterday's reading by Mathis, in the fireside lounge of St. Johnsbury Academy's gorgeous library, drew a capacity crowd of students, as well as area poets and readers. Mathis told the personal narrative behind her book WHAT TO TIP THE BOATMAN -- beginning with the death by suicide of her daughter's close friend in grade 8, her daughter's subsequent emotional illness, and the struggle to regain her child, which led Mathis to seize on the Persephone/Demeter myth as the backbone of the intense sequence of poems. But those poems only came after Mathis's own rebirth, after more than a year of being wordless on paper.

Students in the Academy's "Intaglio Society" and "Printing II" prepared a surprise for the poet. Wrestling in advance of the event with her poems, especially the ones from her most recent collection, WHITE SEA, they crafted intaglio prints that embodied the work, and surrounded their images with Mathis's words. The prints, in varied colors of ink, included powerful abstractions of human figures and the sea, and more concrete designs around snowflakes, birds, trees. The work struck both Mathis and the other poets on hand as an amazing way to receive and appreciate the words.

Queried by her listeners, Mathis also described her own process: She is terrified of the blank sheet of paper, so instead, she keeps a journal and working notebooks. When it's time to write, she thumbs through these, seeking the words that will trigger the poem. She avoids putting the poem into a computer for quite a while, as she finds computers make it "too easy" to lose phrasings that have been part of earlier revisions. And she spoke of her sense of building the work as connected to both the world around her and the "secret world" of the psychic and emotional.

Among her upcoming readings will be an especially unusual one in Amherst, Mass., on July 14, when she'll talk about some of her roots in Emily Dickinson's poetry. (See the Emily Dickinson homestead web site in early summer for details.)

Coming next in the Fireside Literary Series at St. J. Academy: poet Kevin Goodan, May 4, 3:30 p.m.

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