Photo by Jason Gardner
Staff reader Nico Amador talks with poet and editor Carmen Giménez about anti-ekphrasis, the sublime, and her exciting new appointment at Graywolf Press.
Nico Amador: In the most recent issue of NER, you have two poems from a longer series entitled, “A Painting I Can’t Remember.” I interpret these poems as a kind of anti-ekphrasis, subverting the form by giving more rigorous attention to the self than the art that may have prompted each piece of writing. What can you share about the genesis of this series? As you worked on it, were there particular conventions that you found yourself engaging or resisting?
Carmen Giménez: Anti-ekphrasis is definitely how I think about it, though I don’t feel it’s an antagonistic relationship to it but rather an expansion or reframing of what it means to experience a work of art. The first poem I wrote began organically from a text conversation about a painting I couldn’t remember with a friend of mine who’s an art historian. I described details of the painting, but I mostly could remember how I felt and where my body was, how my body felt. I remembered the effect the painting had on my consciousness, maybe edges and faces. After that, I mined the archives of paintings or bits of paintings that stayed with me and attempted to conjure circumstances and autobiography. The series has evolved a little more generally to consider what it means to love visual art and to have a life informed by it. I was lucky that my mother took us to museums normalizing access and relation to a world that sometimes feels forbidding or belonging to someone else. I have also written poems that consider what it is to be an admirer and think about the painter as author/creator.
Sometimes ekphrastic poetry is like a transcript of seeing, so that’s always been an active point of resistance. I’ve done a bit of retrospective visiting to museums, but then only captured small sections of paintings that most captured me. Like you see a face that you love, but it’s not just the whole face you love but rather different elements so that the eyes bewitch and the mouth makes you feel at home, so it’s a resistance to that descriptive: there’s a dog in the corner with a carrot in its mouth which represents my desire, etc.
A challenge I haven’t quite wrapped my mind around is the ubiquity of European and American white male artists that inhabit my archive, a consequence that the Guerilla Girls critique at length, and I’m addressing that in a poem about them and about Ana Mendieta. I’m also inviting new experiences of art in different, less conventional spaces, to change that.
NA: “A Painting I Can’t Remember 11” is animated by a wide range of references that seem to carry equal relevancy in the imagination of the poet. What are your personal habits as a consumer of art and pop culture? What do you give your attention to and how does that inform your creative process?
CG: Like Frank O’Hara, I know the reasons I’m not a painter, but I sure wish I was, so my eyes literally drink art and pop culture. I love the visual world, and to think about how composition is a type of rhetoric. 11 is the first poem of the series that I described earlier, and I guess it represents how my mind works, that I don’t just see what’s there to be seen: I like to see what I hear and taste it. I am a completely uninhibited consumer like the whale who takes giant gulps of ocean to trap whatever fish are in it. I give attention to everything. Besides wanting to have been a painter, I would have loved to have been a collage artist like Jess, or Hannah Höch, which I think is informed by looking at ubiquity as generative. It all can work; it all can fit; it all can generate. I’ve gotten crazy and profound ideas about love from the most elementary cookie-cutter shows. I guess I see that anything can be a portal.
NA: What have you been looking at, listening to, or absorbing lately that’s turning you on?
CG: If there’s a contemporary book that best exemplifies what I just described (shameless Graywolf plug), it’s Predator by Ander Monson. The book is about the movie, which he’s seen 147 times, but it’s also about how we live in the age of the predator, and it’s an autobiography and it’s a lament. I loved Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World (translated by Adrian Nathan West), and noted the interesting turn in fiction that seems a bit connected to the lyric essay, a tinge or thread of rigorous historical and scientific research. Another example of that kind of book is Kim Juyoung, Born 1982 written by Korean novelist Cho Nam-Joo (translated by Jamie Chang), which is a biography of a woman and the harrowing challenges of joining the workforce because of misogyny. The book also uses research and data to contextualize her experience. I’m obsessed with Diane Seuss so I’m reading everything she’s written. Listening to Siouxsie and the Banshees, Mallika Vie, and the Alan Parsons Project, and watching Loot, and Physical on AppleTV.
NA: Both these poems contain a peculiar tension between the impulse toward memory or observation and the “craving” the speaker has for an experience that is more immediate and embodied. They seem to grapple with the gap between what we might seek from art or literature and the limitations of what it can give us. In what ways can that gap be a generative place to write from?
CG: Craving is such a potent element—hunger—which I think is a vital force in your poems, Nico. This series has taken me back to childhood and adolescence, when I recalled the nameless and ineffable desire I had for what I would later discover was the sublime. It’s why I wrote those tortured poems about the soul and angst; I was describing what being on the edge or outside of sublimity felt like, and those nouns felt like they housed it. Wanting to be a painter or perhaps wanting my writing to have the same effect as painting is generative in this series. Trying to remember particles and sections as opposed to wholesale events is also very generative and freeing. Memory is an illusion after all. We aren’t computers; over time, we shape our histories to suit our wants, so by accessing ambiguous moments with art I’m able to think more about a memory’s affective echo.
NA: In “A Painting I Can’t Remember 47,” you write “…having fallen out of love with humanity, / I outgrew my leather pants, irony, / nuclear rage…” These lines speak to a loss of idealism but perhaps also a mode of performance the speaker lets go of in order to permit more vulnerability. What choices do you find yourself making in relationship to voice and self-presentation in your current work?
Yes, yes, yes. I always have an ambition for each book to do something I haven’t done before. The last book I wrote contained a long poem that really became a universe, sonically and thematically, that I was desperate to move on from, and for a long while I was unable to find that next step. My work can be lyrically mysterious (for lack of a better word), and so that’s what the letting go is about. I’m writing more narratively and hopefully in an autobiographical way that’s new.
I also feel like I’m calmer and the anger that’s propelled my work previously feels less appealing. It’s an enormous amount of work to be angry, and though that rage and anger was propulsive, I’m looking at other ways of moving through the world. The first few poems I wrote that contended with this idea were all about shame, which was so zzzzzzzz, so self-involved. My hope is a gaze that is able to look outward, even when I’m writing about myself. Not coolness, not hot, but I guess Goldilock’s just right.
NA: You’re an editor as well as a writer; how do you turn off your editorial instincts when you sit down to write? What methods do you use to give yourself permission to take risks and make messes as you draft?
CG: It’s hard to turn off those instincts. I’m always weighing the rhetorical implications of each noun, adverb, preposition, etc. An advantage is that I can do this work in fairly quick order, but it can be an obstacle. I often do generative exercises that force me to draw from reserves out of my control. I make dramatic revisions that create new problems for me that force me to go deeper, to delve into the negative capability that the certainty of the editor sometimes blocks, the desire to have ended. I also put my poems in other people’s hands who point me to places I haven’t thought of. That collaborative work is humbling and reminds me I’m not some omniscient practitioner.
NA: Speaking of . . . you just broke some big news that you’ve accepted a position as the new executive director and publisher at Graywolf Press. Anything you want to say about your hopes for this next chapter of your career?
CG: I’m so excited about this opportunity. Different muscles, a different conversation, but also an occasion for me to really apply the wonderful gifts and lessons I garnered as publisher at Noemi Press. I love teaching and thinking about literature as a teacher, but this is going to be a unique portal for me. I also adore Graywolf and everything they do. I have long admired the team, especially after having worked with them on my last book, so jumping into their stream feels like a dream. Life is long, but it’s also short. I don’t know what’s ahead, so I tend to jump into adventure.
Nico Amador’s writing has been published in Bettering American Poetry, Vol. 3, Poem-a-Day, PANK, Pleiades, The Cortland Review, Hypertext Review, The Visible Poetry Project and featured on the Poetry Unbound podcast. His chapbook, Flower Wars, won the Anzaldúa Poetry Prize and was published by Newfound Press. He holds an MFA from Bennington College, is a grant recipient of the Vermont Arts Council and an alumni of the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Writers Retreat.