This image was created outside of the usual Broadsided “respond to writing” system—can you talk about its origins?
Artist Elizabeth Terhune: Well, as a visual artist I spend time drawing or painting—pretty much every day—so this kind of small piece is actually characteristic. It’s how I begin my day, like a diary entry.
This particular drawing was loosely based on a song I wrote this summer while sitting by a small pond in the Catskills. “Butterfly, butterfly, redwing and dragonfly…” I’d discovered a kalimba in the cabin. You can strum them and ping them and tap the wood. So, I’d go do watercolors outside by the pond (my husband, the poet Mark Sullivan, has a few poems about observing me doing such) and make up songs while waiting for paint to dry—or after I’d messed up a painting. And there really are dragonflies and bees and all sorts of things winging around. When you sit still things don’t mind you and they come around.
This poem was written in response to Elizabeth Terhune’s art—can you talk about the experience of finding words that were in conversation with the image?
Poet Cindy St. John: I stared at the piece for some time and tried to write about it, but everything just seemed contrived and cheesy. I decided my connection to it was not about the images themselves, but more of an emotional connection. So, I wrote a poem that I felt reflected the same sort of urgency of the painting, even though my subject matter is quite different. I was on the phone with my grandmother when she said some phrases I found strange and lovely, even though she was describing the pain of a medical procedure.I immediately thought of Elizabeth Terhune’s painting.
What surprises you about Cindy St. John’s poem in conversation with your art?
Artist Elizabeth Terhune: St. John’s poem is a small tour de force. It surprised me that the poet would pair that kind of force with a drawing that I think of as essentially lyric. I find the combination really exciting.
What leapt out first from Elizabeth’s art? A particular image? A mood? A line?
Poet Cindy St. John: I’m always attracted to beauty in violence, or violence in beauty. This piece has an ethereal movement to it, in the paint itself and in the winged creatures hovering around the imprint of a gun. I felt connected to that tension.
What did you expect a writer to pick up on from “Among Trees”?
Artist Elizabeth Terhune: I had no idea what people would see in the drawing and was worried that the image would make poets feel constrained to the specifics of the drawing. The insects are both goofy and splendorous. I guess I expected that the people touching nose-to-nose within this private world would inspire poems about affection and tenderness. St. John’s poem contains both but from a different vantage point.
Paired with the art, do you think the poem does something different or has a different tone?
Poet Cindy St. John: I like the way the two titles and the painting work with the first two lines of the poem in extending the metaphor further. I am also impressed by the way the painting intensifies lines like “just a little darkness” and “opening her up,” as if this is what we would find inside someone’s chest. Honestly, I feel the painting gives the poem a little more weight. The idea of writing a “grandma” poem makes me nervous, much to my grandmother’s chagrin. The painting somehow lets me get away with it a little more than when the poem stands alone.
Paired with the poem, do you think the art does something different or has a different tone?
Artist Elizabeth Terhune: The poem addresses the weird intimacy of medical imaging—its generative power, and its compression of history into a film. The drawing presents a much more magical world. Even though the poem is narrative and the drawing is lyric, both court a kind of suspension of time, a moment of untethering. I think the poem does shave off some of the drawing’s lyric emphasis—which is fine with me. It also expands the way to consider the two figures sharing breath.
Have you ever written poems in response to art before? What was the experience like for you?
Poet Cindy St. John: I write quite a bit about art, and also movies and music, maybe because I’ve always wanted to be a visual artist. Frank O’Hara’s poem “Why I am Not a Painter” has always been a favorite of mine. I don’t have any formal art education, so I just write about art that I like, how it confronts me physically and the energy conducted in the space between me and the work.
If your art were an animal, what would it be?
Artist Elizabeth Terhune: A redwinged blackbird.
If your poem were an animal, what would it be?
Poet Cindy St. John: Um, a bee.
If the broadside collaboration were an animal, what would it be?
Artist Elizabeth Terhune: A badger perhaps. A creature of two realms—and those stripes!
Another thought: a tree top where redwings and crows face off. (Crows are menacing, I know, but I like them: they’re intelligent, social birds. Life is crow-like: gorgeous and devastating.)
So, the poem: gorgeous crows, but anxiety rising, and the drawing: vigilant redwings. Look up if you hear a cacophony in the trees—the collaboration.
Poet Cindy St. John: A griffin.
Read any good books lately?
Artist Elizabeth Terhune: Yve-Alain Bois, Painting as Model. A terrific discussion of painters and painting. Then, because I’m obsessed with memory and cognition, from St. Augustine’s Confessions, book 13 on “Memory” (G. Wills trans.).
I’d also like to mention the wonderful book of poetry by Broadsided’s own Elizabeth Bradfield. Her new book of poems Interpretive Work is a strong, beautiful collection.
Poet Cindy St. John: The Singing Knives by Frank Standford, The World Cut Out with Crooked Scissors by Carsten Rene Nielsen, The Floating Bridge by David Shumate, Cherry by Mary Karr, and I liked the essay “American” by Joshua Clark in the Best American Nonrequired Reading of 2007. I just started Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson and Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks, both of which are already great. It feels like I never have enough time to read, but apparently I do. I am always reading two or three books at a time.
Seen any good art lately?
Artist Elizabeth Terhune: Poussin. One really can always see more Poussin. Luc Tuymans’s paintings at David Zwirner. The early paintings of Carroll Dunham at Skarstedt. Bill Jensen’s works on paper at Danese. I’ve also heard great things about this year’s Whitney Biennial so I’m looking forward to seeing that.
Poet Cindy St. John: Yes, I just went to New York. The New Museum just opened with their first exhibition, Unmonumental. I especially liked the sculptures by Carol Bove and Rachel Harrison. Everything in the New Museum is well, new, the paint’s practically still wet, and that was exciting. At the Whitney, I saw Kara Walker’s exhibit My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love. Also, MoMA had the etchings of Lucien Freud, one of my favorites.
Artist Elizabeth Terhune: Well, St. John gets a big thank you for her beautiful poem and her courage in pushing at the boundaries of collaboration. I’d like to also say that it was really humbling to know there were people writing to engage in collaboration with my drawing and I want to express my appreciation and gratitude. A studio practice can be isolating. Thank you to everyone for taking the time to look at, think and write about a drawing. Finally, the Broadsided team—my deepest thanks.
Poet Cindy St. John: Thank you for choosing my poem. I’m honored. Can I confess something? I tell you this as an artist, I think you’ll understand. Sometimes when I’m driving… on the road at night… I see two headlights coming toward me. Fast. I have this sudden impulse to turn the wheel quickly, head-on into the oncoming car. I can anticipate the explosion. The sound of shattering glass. The… flames rising out of the flowing gasoline.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to find that a piece of art elicits from writers a vast range of responses. Yet we found ourselves, reading through submissions to this third Switcheroo, newly-astonished at the variety of styles, subjects, and stances that Elizabeth Terhune’s many-winged image inspired.
Terhune’s sepia-toned bister ink work is at once chaotic and simple. It can be read as fanciful (an abundance of legs and wings!) or as dire (the dark, dark bodies). Writers sent us poems and stories about love gone wrong, decay, the erotics of bees, strange-winged angels, and even a piece that referenced the recent terrifying die-offs of honeybees that have been in the news in the past few years. Terhune’s work seemed to evoke, in poets in particular, wild excesses of startling imagery—no doubt in response to the work’s own excesses.
In the end, two poems spoke strongest when put in conversation with the art. “The Heart is a Bee Hive” by Cindy St. John and “Among Trees” by Tammy Trendle. We wrestled. We discussed. We called in outside opinions. The two poems were so different in style, and each cast a different light on Terhune’s art. In the end, the dark emotion of St. John’s “The Heart is a Bee Hive” won the day. What a surprise to have the subject be not erotic love but familial love, not the pastoral but the inscape of the diseased body.
Because we lingered so long over both poems, we’d like to print Tammy Trendle’s “Among Trees.” The quick leaps of viewpoint in this well-made poem resonated with the chaos in Terhune’s image. We hope you enjoy both poems and the final Broadsided publication.
“Among Trees” by Tammy Trendle
When trees are bare they look like
they want the sky more. He says
the difference is automatic
transmissions need fluid. I wear
too many clothes to notice. If you hold
your head at a right angle, a tree
will turn on its side for you. Sometimes
a bird gets caught in the engine
of my mouth. Words become
insects too small to see. He buzzes
inside an open hood. I worry over
oil stains on the driveway, too many
potholes in the road. He says
the problem is in the alignment
of branches. Among trees
there are two types
of color: with wings
Tammy Foster Trendle resides in Atlanta, Georgia where she works as a litigation paralegal and is mom to an amazing 4-year-old son. Her poems have appeared in several print and online publications including: storySouth, MiPOesias, Thieves Jargon, and Concelebratory Shoehorn Review. She is co-author with Pris Campbell of the chapbook, Interchangeable Goddesses (Rose of Sharon/3 Virgins Press).