I had a great time recently meeting Julie B. Montgomery, a painter who incorporates words in her works, and Ken McAlpine, a wily travel writer, in a round-table discussion for the August issue of Ventana Monthly. “An Author, a Painter, and a Poet” sounds like the beginning of a joke — but turned out to be the start of a great conversation. The editor, Matt Katz, then focused our lively banter into a print article on “the quiet art of words.”
I also had the pleasure of reading some poems on Thursday night for the opening of the “Profusion of Thoughts” gallery exhibit at the Ventura County Administration building. Thanks to the ingenuity of the Ventura County Arts Council, this government building with its brutalist exterior plays host inside to an exciting collection of paintings and sculptures, making it one of the most well-trafficked galleries in the county (and, no doubt, a much nicer place to work.) This particular exhibit featured works from the Ojai Studio Artists — a friendly group of talented visual artists who live in my own backyard.
Engaging in these kinds of interdisciplinary dialogs is good for me. I begin to understand the peculiarities of my medium — words — through conversations with painters and sculptors. I understand more about the aims of poetry through conversations with prose writers. And, when it comes to the discipline of art, I find we all have a surprising amount in common. Julie, Ken, and I discussed a lot that didn’t make it to the page — about finding freedom in limitations, the discipline of craftsmanship, surrendering to life’s constraints, the inadequacies inherent in any medium, and the “total adequacy,” as Heaney puts it, that comes through when a work of art transcends its materials.
More and more, as I engage with other artists, I begin to see myself, not as a poet, but as an artist whose particular medium happens to be words. Strangely enough, this mindset seems to propel me into a more exciting relationship with words themselves, using words, as I said in our discussion (quoting Marvin Bell), to get beyond words — even as a painter gets beyond the paint. Yet even as I identify more with artists in general, my appreciation for the strengths and limitations of poetry itself has never been keener. It seems that, even as specificity in writing is often the means to evoking something universal, the more I identify universally as an artist, the more I embrace being a poet specifically.