Monday, February 26, 2024

TtD supplement #257 : seven questions for Terri Witek

Terri Witek is the author of 8 previous full-length books of poems and many chapbooks: the most recent, Something’s Missing in This Museum, was published by Anhinga Press in 2023, with another, DOWN WATER STREET, imminent from above/ground press. Exit Island was a Florida Book Award medalist; The Rape Kit was the Slope Editions Prize 2018 winner, judged by Dawn Lundy Martin. Martin calls The Rape Kit “a grand success, the best we’ll get. Fresh, relevant, and heartbreaking” and “a fire in the throat of a culture that has no appropriate language for rape and its aftermath…”

Witek’s visual poetics work is featured in JUDITH: Women Making Visual Poetry (2021), and in the WAAVe Global Gallery of Women’s Asemic Writing and Visual Poetry (2021) as well as in arts venues. The poet’s collaborations with Brazilian visual artist Cyriaco Lopes (cyriacolopes.com) have, since 2005, been shown nationally and internationally: in New York, Seoul, Miami, Lisbon, Valencia (Spain) and Rio de Janeiro. The duo have been represented by The Liminal gallery in Valencia: their most recent collaboration was featured at ARCO, Madrid (2023) where the Liminal won special jury mention. Since 2011, collaborations with new media artist Matt Roberts (mattroberts.com) often use augmented reality technology and have been featured in Matanza (Colombia), Lisbon, Glasgow, Vancouver, and Miami. Recent collaborative work with poet Amaranth Borsuk loops the pandemic and the eco-crisis as a crisis of rain and smoke between worlds; that with weaver Paula Damm combines text/textile. Individual and collaborative work has been featured in a wide variety of text venues, including Fence, The Colorado Review, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, American Poetry Review, Poetry, Slate, Hudson Review, Lana Turner, The New Republic, and many other journals and anthologies.  

With Cyriaco Lopes, Witek team-teaches Poetry in the Expanded Field in Stetson University’s low-residency MFA of the Americas; they also run The Fernando Pessoa Game as faculty in the summer Disquiet International Literary Program in Lisbon. Witek holds the university’s Sullivan Chair in Creative Writing and is the recipient of both the McInery Award and the John Hague Award for teaching. terriwitek.com

Her poems “Foot Sons,” “Cash Sons,” “Package Sons,” “Insider Suns” and “Wreck Sons” appear in the fortieth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Foot Sons,” “Cash Sons,” “Package Sons,” “Insider Suns” and “Wreck Sons.”

A: First of all, thanks for bringing these “double son” poems into space and air, rob!  You are really a nexus of interesting people and poems, and I’m happy to have somehow found my way into your company.   

Anyone from a big Catholic family like mine knows about multiples—the clothes handed through years of siblings, the matched sets, the confusion with names.  As a parent of two very cute small girls (and older kids too), I’m sure you too marvel at how by pairing —as with any ‘rhyme’—you are seduced by similarity into the pleasure of proliferating differences: how could these two things have sprung from the same dna—of language or people?

In my case, putting dead son and live son into the same poems lets a pair remix in perhaps the way my own children’s DNA stays in my body. In my book BODY SWITCH one dead boy (the suicide) is stiff and hieratic: I needed a more fun dead sib to liven things up. That one critiques various wars on boys. But here by bringing the live son and dead son into parity—at the beach, in a taxi, etc. they both can be on the move—they get to talk, to disagree, to slant their eyes at me in similar fashion. It was a relief and a great pleasure to write these poems. I am happy to be the one in the back seat digging in a purse for the right change.

And technically, of course, multiples offer a way to make motion when you have as little narrative skill as I have. That we all stay on the move (even if dead, even in disaster) offers a brief equity, too.

Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: Thanks for asking this. I have been sorting the double sons into a larger universe and while I started off thinking the kids would stay together, now I’m weaving three different kinds of poems into the mix. One group steps down into tombs as I did last summer with visual artist Cyriaco Lopes in Etruscan Italy (especially Tarquinia): those poems are tiny. Little skinny steps. The third group are 14-liners about the future, spurred by a student’s anguished question. Weirdly these different modes seem to tolerate glancing against/touching noses with each other so far—now I call them all tomb pombs.

But really that's just one thing. Cyriaco and I are longterm collaborators and we are currently making little text-image combos to drop into the ad section of my local weekly newspaper—we’re sending each other 5 images then adding /altering each other’s images with text. Amaranth Borsuk and I are just starting to try a video collab that stands next to our dystopian ms W / \ SH, which you were kind to include part of in your chap series. And Cyriaco and I have 2 new little vids, one made with Urayoán Noel at our winter MFA residency—we hardly slept!

I’d have to have a bigger cloud for an eye to say exactly what all these have to do with the double sons, but my sense is that like these dear friends, the double sons somehow work as collaborators too.  

Q: What first brought you to working these collaborations? And what do you find possible with collaborative work that might not have been possible otherwise? How do you see your collaborative efforts, as well, affecting your solo work?

A: When I was 4 and my family had just moved into a new house, a boy (also 4!) showed up at the door and asked my mom if the little girl inside could come out and play. His dad was a roofer, and we walked down an alley to a huge pile of sand.  Eventually a garage door opened to rolls of tarpaper/stacks of shingles. All much taller than we were.  I was like “what IS this stuff?” That’s one of the joys of collaboration—weird materialities beckon. Plus the combo of intimacy and practicality that’s often the best part of any relationship. Plus miracles, as when I met Cyriaco in Central Florida for the first time and confessed (very hesistantly) to writing about Ariadne and he said—I’VE JUST BEEN TO HER HOUSE. He was still tan from Knossos!  

I’m from a small school in a small town and hanging out with the arts people is definitely my mo. When Katie Baczeski said ‘interact with an animal/not a domestic one’ I ended up thinking about eggs and Clarice Lispector. Not at all on my daily planner. Videoing chickens eating a line from Clarice in seed corn (egg, you are perfect) was such a joy, and the solo book that followed, THE RATTLE EGG, let me turn my lone hometown strolls into something else. I’m forever grateful.

Because Cyriaco and I team-teach in the MFA of the Americas, which we helped found, make gallery shows and interactive work that lives in floating locales, we’ve had some wonderful times. When our gallerist Pablo Vindel, featured our work with another duplo at ARCO in Madrid last year it was surreal (did the king and queen really stop by?) But smaller moments really show how collabs weave into/make lives and are just as terrific: here’s a shot from a new thing we call WOVEN. We were considering doing something else in this black box theater at Atlantic Center for the Arts but then one hand in my studio/closet hit ribbon...

Q: I’m fascinated by the way you utilize writing as but one element of larger projects, incorporating textiles, movement, collaboration. You make it all sound natural and easy, but have there been directions you’ve wished to go with materials that haven’t quite worked yet? What are those material boundaries that have, as yet, you’ve been hitting against?

A: hahaha. Well, I haven’t been able to work the margins for DOWN WATER STREET, my next project with you: literally the end words I need are threatening to fall off the side of the known world!  But this is the sort of thing I never work out alone, thank goodness. Mark Strand once said in a workshop that style is a matter of our limitations: that’s been a comfort as well as an actual accurate description. Materially, my skillset is very limited—don’t draw, not good at sewing, don’t cook etc. So if it's bad I just quit—like the time for some reason I brought turmeric in a bowl to what turned out to be a computer-based project (Breathe the Machine). Usually I wander around looking at things until something occurs to me from what the world is handing out that day. I inherited all the slides from the art dept, for example—just didn’t feel right to consign them to a dumpster. Had no idea what to do with them until I was walking around outside and began lifting one overhead. Those slidesky social media drops were lockdown gifts. Do things resist my getting close? Probably, if I thought that way—but I am not interested in mastery of stuff—more like I like noting their different beings. Meantime, it seems pertinent I run up against actually being lost quite often: last month, on my own street, which was something. So I guess I really don’t know the direction I want to go!  

Q: So perhaps this question is moot, then: with more than a dozen books and chapbooks to your credit, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work heading?

A: Oh not moot! I feel the wind at my back and so much ambition! I do think I’m getting closer to what seemed the next move when I started writing “about” art ekphrastically: that I need to get into the paint somehow. Currently that means I’m trying to make powerpoint poetics that seem their own thing, for instance (not explanatory/not decorative). Usually I’m figuring out something as an art form because it’s so there—like seeing marks for water lines on my street. I’ve really been wondering about different forms of mark-making, too; the false doors painted into Etruscan tombs that look like TT. Not sure if these thoughts have an afterlife. But I do feel as if some new work is ahead, like a shadow the sun will shift soon (I hope!) and make.
Community-wise, I’d like to keep growing into poetry’s expanded field with people who know different things and are happy to throw in together and not worry too much about definitions. My students definitely are great tosser-outers and includers—very bracing! And I’ve had great examples from different spaces—shout out to the visual poetics people who picked me up somehow—Dona Mayoora, Amanda Earl, Kristine Snodgrass, Andrew Brenza, Joakim Norling, Francisco Aprile, Nicola Winborn and all who presented irresistible opportunities even though I’m never quite in the same room. My expanded field MFA poetry faculty colleagues like Jena Osman, Ronaldo Wilson, La Tasha N Nevada Diggs, Laura Mullen, Urayoán Noel and Vidhu Aggarwal (and guests like Amaranth Borsuk, Erica Baum, Tracie Morris, Johnny Damm, Brenda Hillman, Edgar Heap of Birds) all commit firmly to the messy future. I hope to be smart and kind like them and stay face forward.   

Personally, I’d love to be included in more installations—installing is so fascinating—and exhibitions, especially international ones. I loved writing in pencil on a gallery wall. I’d love a publication homebase too.  I know where I’m penciled in to be as a person this year but where my work is actually headed “we shall see,” as mom used to say with half-threat, half-relish. I got married at 19 and had 3 kids by 25, so from that point on my life has pretty much been a matter of necessity+chance and walking through painted doors. I had fun making titles for my new future poems, though:

The Future Won't Calm Us
The Future Makes a Little Money
The Future Will Not Be a Known Language
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: I’m going to take reading as seeing too, as I tangle them. I always open Lispector and Perec and Pessoa and Dickinson (also Howe’s GORGEOUS NOTHINGS showing how what Dickinson wrote on changes everything). Yoko Ono and NH Pritchard. I loved Auden early and that remains. A wooden postcard by Jenny Holzer and paper ones by Ian Hamilton Finlay—these are propped or pinned around. Things people in my family wrote out as children: I CAN BAKE PANCAKES or a crooked list of paint sample hues (Golden Plumeria, Bee Yellow, Icy Lemonade). The sampler my many times great-grandmother sewed without a Q in 1839.

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